A Squirrel Loose at the Big, Freaky International Hotel (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a look at Sony’s Elvis Live 1969 boxed set (2019), which contains all 11 concerts RCA recorded in Elvis Presley’s August 1969 engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. [Read Part 1.]

“It’s getting loose at the International, boy!”
–Elvis Presley, 1969

The 11-disc Elvis Live 1969 is unfortunately housed in an 8-inch format box, such as used for 2012’s 3-disc Prince From Another Planet, rather than the 12-inch style, such as used for 2014’s 10-disc That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition or 2018’s 6-disc ELVIS: ’68 Comeback Special – 50th Anniversary Edition. The 12-inch style harkens back to the days of LP record albums, while the 8-inch style is out of place on both CD and record shelves. Use of the 8-inch box was evidently a cost-saving move, but the set would have benefited so much from the larger format. Even at 8-inches, the set at a glance appears beautiful, but looks can be deceiving.

Elvis Live 1969 includes a 50-page booklet documenting the 1969 Vegas engagement. The opening Foreword, as with some of the marketing material associated with this set, quotes Elvis from his 1972 press conference for his Madison Square Garden appearances three years later about why he returned to performing live. As he tells the same story no less than 11 times on this very set, I would have preferred the use of 1969 quotes.

Reading like one of the over-the-top press releases that Sony lately uses to promote Elvis CDs, the unsigned Foreword also notes:

“After Elvis’ disastrous two-week 1956 Vegas engagement at the New Frontier Hotel, thirteen years later, his victorious live return in the same city made the meteoric success of his sold-out run (July 31-August 28, 1969/29 shows in total) that much sweeter.”

I call this out not to sicken you with the syrupy language, but to highlight an error. Elvis performed 57 shows during the date ranges of this engagement, not 29. The singer performed two shows a night throughout the month-long engagement (July 31 consisted only of the Opening Show). Even the very boxed set that the Foreword introduces features 11 shows recorded in the course of 6 days (beginning with the August 21 Midnight Show and concluding with the August 26 Midnight Show).

A bigger guffaw occurs in the tracklisting at the end of the booklet. Both CD 5 and CD 9 are listed as the “August 25, 1969, Midnight Show.” CD 5 actually contains the August 23 Midnight Show. Thankfully, the disc contents and label are correct.

Regarding such mistakes, you might ask, “Who cares?” Apparently not those responsible for Elvis releases. Allowing myself to veer off track just for a moment, Sony’s Follow That Dream (FTD) collectors label for Elvis fans routinely releases such errors. Two of the most embarrassing examples when it comes to text are misspelling “Presley” on the spine of 2008’s Wild In The Country and misspelling “Burning Love” on the back cover of this year’s St. Louis/Spokane. On the same St. Louis/Spokane release, the back cover numbers tracks 15-20 as: 15, 16, 16, 16, 21, 20. Though collectors pay premium prices for these releases compared to mainstream CDs, FTD is a small, boutique label with minimal resources and a limited target market. Sure, most 5-year-olds could have caught the counting errors, but let’s not talk about that.

Getting back to Elvis Live 1969, I note the two sloppy examples in the booklet (and there are others, but that is not the focus of this review) as unfortunate indicators that the carelessness condoned at the small FTD label has bled over into a full-fledged release like this one on the main Sony Legacy label.

Sony Legacy’s ELVIS LIVE 1969 boxed set – booklet in foreground of CD holders (2019, from Tygrrius’ collection)

The rest of the booklet consists primarily of excerpts from Ken Sharp‘s excellent Elvis: Vegas ’69 book from 2009. Those who were there, including Elvis himself, tell the story of the concert engagement through first-hand accounts. If you are a fan of the era, as I am, the full book is definitely worth seeking. However, the booklet as presented in Elvis Live 1969 provides a nice, abridged version to go with the CDs.

The 11 CDs are packaged in two cardboard holders. “Packaged” is a polite term. They are mercilessly wedged into two cardboard holders. Use caution extracting a CD to prevent damaging the disc, the holder, or both. Why Sony continues to use ridiculous forms of packaging, which so often fail to serve the singular purpose of protecting the discs, is beyond me. While I backed mine up to iTunes, if you plan routinely to play the original discs I would suggest you place them in more accessible cases as to avoid almost certain damage over time.

Use of imagery from vintage International Hotel menus and advertising in the holder for CDs 1-5 is fun, and I wish that concept had been extended to both holders. Some of the interior Elvis photo choices for the holders are baffling, including two, count them, two photos of Elvis apparently raising his armpit to the audience in the holder for CDs 6-11. These are, of course, shots capturing a split moment in time while Elvis is in motion, but why spotlight such awkward photos when better ones are available elsewhere in this very same set?

I must remind you that I did not set out to write a review when I began this post a week ago. I, therefore, have gone about this in a different manner than if I planned it out in a logical fashion. So, I have covered thus far mixing and packaging, but what I have mostly left out to this point is the star of the show, Elvis Presley.

When it comes to the Elvis aspects of Elvis Live 1969, I must admit to a small degree of disappointment. I have enthusiastically reviewed a number of previous releases of individual concerts from this engagement in the past, so I was surprised at this reaction.

Compared to That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition, which similarly compiles 6 of his shows from his 3rd engagement at the same Vegas hotel the following summer, Elvis Live 1969 feels like a slight let-down.

While Summer 1969 wins out in head-to-head comparisons of the same songs in just about every case (“Words” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” being the only two exceptions that come immediately to mind), the overall Summer 1970 shows are superior, if that makes any sense, at least during the filming of That’s The Way It Is, with better/more varied set lists and a more polished performer. In both seasons, Elvis is at the very top of his game, to be clear, but Summer 1970 is more entertaining than Summer 1969. How blessed we are, as fans, to have his two best concert series so well documented.

Next week, we’ll dive into more of the Elvis details as we continue and possibly conclude our look at Elvis Live 1969.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 3]


“He holds in his hands the depths of the earth and the mightiest mountains. The sea belongs to him, for he made it. His hands formed the dry land, too.”
Psalm 95:4-5

A Squirrel Loose at the Big, Freaky International Hotel (Part 1)

“Welcome to the big, freaky International Hotel, with these little, weirdo dolls on the walls and these little funky angels on the ceiling. You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a funky angel, boy. I tell you for sure.”
–Elvis Presley, 1969, on the ornate design of the hotel’s concert showroom

Sony Legacy last year released Elvis Live 1969, a boxed set containing all 11 concerts RCA recorded during Elvis Presley’s August 1969 engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The concert series, which spanned 57 shows from July 31 to August 28, represented the singer’s first appearance on a public stage in nearly 9 years – though he had performed 4 shows in front of small audiences at NBC’s studio in Burbank, California, as part of taping his ELVIS television special the previous summer.

RCA cherry-picked 12 of the strongest performances from 3 of the 1969 shows to form the Elvis In Person portion of the From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis double album, released in November 1969. A year later, RCA re-released Elvis In Person as a stand-alone album with the same content.

As for the rest of the performances, they amazingly remained in the vault until after Elvis’ death. While RCA released several individual songs over the years, including a compilation disc on 1991’s Collectors Gold boxed set, a complete 1969 show did not officially surface until 2001’s Live In Las Vegas boxed set.

By the time of Elvis Live 1969 last year, however, 7 of the 11 shows had already been released in their entireties on CD, with a good portion of songs from 3 of the 4 remaining shows having been released as well – many of them on Sony’s Follow That Dream (FTD) collectors label for Elvis fans.

Elvis Live 1969 stands out among the previous releases because it gathers all of the recordings in one place for the first time, with homogeneous sound quality. The recordings capture the August 21-26 portion of the engagement.

Sony Legacy’s ELVIS LIVE 1969 boxed set (2019, from Tygrrius’ collection)

Mixed by Matt Ross-Spang in what was apparently a marathon session, Elvis Live 1969 features a “slapback” echo effect mimicking the sound of Elvis’ first recordings in 1954 & 1955 at Sun Studio in Memphis. Ross-Spang had applied the same effect to alternate takes on 2016’s Way Down in the Jungle Room, an overview of Elvis’ last formal recordings in 1976 at Graceland.

As it was not representative of the original intent in 1976 or 1969, some fans have been quite critical of Ross-Spang’s slapback effect. As for me, I don’t mind it at all. It breathed some life into the 1976 studio recordings and brought Elvis’ music full-circle, in a sense, with an homage to the Sun sound. Though less effective on the 1969 live recordings, it’s not too distracting. On a few songs, such as “Mystery Train,” which of course originated in the Sun era anyway, the effect can actually be phenomenal.

Where I differ from Ross-Spang on Elvis Live 1969 is on some of his mixing choices, especially as far as which instruments are prominent. For instance, horns overwhelm a portion of James Burton’s lead guitar solo in the middle of the “Blue Suede Shoes” opener on all 11 shows. The horns weren’t even audible at all during Burton’s solo on the original Elvis In Person album and most of the subsequent revisits of this material.

The horns distracting from the lead guitar vaguely reminds me of Elvis’ February 11, 1956, appearance on Stage Show (CBS), the Jackie Gleason-produced television series hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. In his third of six appearances on the program, Elvis debuts “Heartbreak Hotel” for the national TV audience. At the point where Scotty Moore would normally rip into his now classic electric guitar solo, a trumpeter improvises a jazz-inspired solo instead. While I enjoy jazz, it did not work in the context of this rock ‘n’ roll song. Fortunately, Moore is able to let loose in performances of “Heartbreak Hotel” on two subsequent shows. The 1969 “Blue Suede Shoes” is thankfully not affected to nearly this extent, though, for Burton is at least playing his solo!

Another example is that Larry Muhoberac’s piano is mixed far too loudly on certain shows, especially the August 26 Midnight Show, the last 1969 concert captured. Was Ross-Spang running out of time or is this truly how he felt the show should sound? “Mystery Train/Tiger Man,” which should be a showcase for the guitar and drums, suffers greatly from the distracting and overbearing piano in this particular show.

The August 25 Dinner Show and August 26 Dinner Show versions of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” are similarly impacted by too much piano in the mix. Five of the remaining shows that include this medley fortunately keep the piano at low or moderate volumes, while the August 25 Midnight Show version, which was the performance used as the master on Elvis In Person, actually strikes a great balance – having the piano quite present but at an appropriate level.

Of course, it is all a matter of taste. For an Elvis live show, I want the lead guitar (Burton), Elvis guitar (when applicable), drums (Ronnie Tutt), and bass (Jerry Scheff) prominent in the mix among the instruments, generally in that order of priority, but certainly varying to some extent per song.

The rock ‘n’ roll numbers, at least, should heavily feature guitar, drums, and bass. That is the core of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis style. The piano, other guitars, and orchestra should be present as needed, but not so much as to overwhelm that core. The piano is far less annoying on a slow song like “Love Me Tender,” for instance, where it better suits being prominent in the mix.

To be clear, the mixing on the majority of these shows is great. For example, “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is mixed to perfection on the August 22 Midnight Show and is of course buoyed by a committed and powerful vocal performance by Elvis, as with many of the songs in this boxed set. This version of “Mystery Train” I can’t help but crank up every single time it comes on, much as I do with the 1955 Sun studio master.

Ross-Spang also tends to favor the Sweet Inspirations over the Imperials, as far as the background vocalists – an approach I heartily support. Millie Kirkham notwithstanding, Elvis sounds better with female voices behind him instead of males, and I love the Gospel-infused quality of the Sweet Inspirations. I should note that I intend no disrespect to any of the musicians and singers involved, all of whom are very talented. I am just talking about how I best feel the music when it comes to Elvis.

Before I get too far off track here, I think that covers it for the technical aspects of the set. I actually wasn’t even intending for this to become a review per se, but I just go where the writing leads me.

Next week, we’ll continue our look at Elvis Live 1969 and, possibly, get to the actual reason I started this post.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 2]


“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”
Proverb 31:8-9

Elvis embarks on THE RETURN TO VEGAS

Forty-five years ago tonight, only eleven days after astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous “one small step” on the moon, Elvis Presley took his own giant leap.

On that July 31st night in 1969, the singer stepped onto the stage of the International Hotel in Las Vegas and firmly reestablished himself as one of the world’s most dynamic performers.

His comeback after years of making movies had already revved into high gear back in December, with NBC’s broadcast of the highly-rated and critically-acclaimed ELVIS TV special.

He rode the tide of that success into his first Memphis recording sessions in nearly 15 years, resulting in smash hits “Suspicious Minds,” “In The Ghetto,” and “Don’t Cry, Daddy.”

Elvis was on fire again, and his Vegas engagement was another crown jewel in his comeback. With two shows a night, seven days a week, for four weeks, the concerts represented his first live appearances in nearly nine years – outside of four studio audience shows for his TV special.

RCA started recording the Vegas shows on August 21, capturing eleven complete concerts in all that summer. At that time, some of the best tracks were selected for an album, From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis (Elvis In Person). More recently, several of the shows have been released in full:

  • August 21 Midnight Show (MS) on Elvis: Viva Las Vegas (2007 Limited Edition)
  • August 22 Dinner Show (DS) on Elvis In Person (2008 FTD Edition)
  • August 23 MS on Elvis At The International
  • August 24 DS on Live In Las Vegas
  • August 25 MS on Hot August Night
  • August 26 DS on Live In Vegas
  • August 26 MS on All Shook Up

To commemorate the forty-fifth anniversary of this engagement, Sony’s collectors label for Elvis fans recently released on CD The Return To Vegas, the earliest known recording from this concert series.

The shows listed above are all multitrack recordings, meaning they were professionally captured for potential commercial release and can be properly mixed after the fact for optimum sound quality.

By contrast, Follow That Dream’s The Return To Vegas is a soundboard recording – an informal reference tape made in-line from the showroom’s soundboard console – never intended for release.

While the sound quality can be improved in certain ways, soundboard mixes are pretty much stuck as to how they were originally recorded. Some bootlegs are copies of copies, though, so sometimes there can be improved sound quality versus previous releases if an earlier generation source is used.

The Return To Vegas is actually one of the better-sounding soundboard CDs I have purchased.

THE RETURN TO VEGAS booklet cover

THE RETURN TO VEGAS booklet cover

I must admit, however, that I am surprised. I was expecting to be blown away by The Return To Vegas. After all, this recording from an unconfirmed date in August is probably the closest we will ever come to hearing the legendary July 31 show that opened the engagement.

To be clear, like all 1969 Elvis shows released thus far, The Return To Vegas represents one of his best concerts. Yet, I found it slightly disappointing.

With that being said, The Return To Vegas does have many strong points. “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is inspired, for instance, with the guitar portion of the lead-off song sounding closer to the 1955 SUN version than it ever would again on later recordings. I wish James Burton had kept playing it this way. An overbearing train whistle effect ruins some of that for me, though, and the performances on Hot August Night and Live In Vegas will remain my go-to versions.

The versions of “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” are strong enough to contend for best of the season, at least out of what has been released thus far. “Don’t Be Cruel” is also strong.

During this engagement, Elvis took several minutes out of each show to talk about his career. This is, by far, my favorite of these “monologues.” It is actually the only previously released track on this CD, though, having been released in an edited form way back in 1974 for the infamous Having Fun With Elvis On Stage “talking” album. While the concept behind that particular album may have been poor, this monologue was actually pretty funny and gave some credibility to the Having Fun title.

“Are You Lonesome Tonight” features a slightly different arrangement than later versions, with strings instead of Sweet Inspiration Cissy Houston’s soaring vocals. It makes for a nice alternative, but I much prefer the versions with Houston. In addition, Elvis sounds uncomfortable during the spoken portions.

On “Blue Suedes Shoes,” Elvis also seems unsure of himself, plodding through it with slow and deliberate vocals. “All Shook Up” starts in fine form but degrades near the end due to Elvis going into a, dare I say, imitator-style quality on his vocals.

While I normally enjoy the bluesy arrangement of “Heartbreak Hotel” that made its debut at this engagement, the version here is lacking. It sounds off from the start and never really gains momentum. He sounds nearly manic on “Hound Dog,” and this version becomes tiresome on repeat listens. “Suspicious Minds” is decent, but not particularly memorable.

All-in-all, The Return To Vegas is a mixed bag. Audio quality aside, it certainly cannot compete as the strongest overall 1969 show released thus far.

So, when exactly did the show (or shows) presented on this CD take place? The accompanying booklet is sparse on information, focusing instead on photos of Elvis from the time.

Though FTD’s press release indicated this was originally prepared for release as a double album by RCA in the late 1970s before being cancelled, no associated paperwork is included in the booklet.

A brief essay by Ken Sharp (author of Elvis: Vegas ’69) fails to even mention this particular performance, speaking only in generalities about the overall engagement.

We do know that it is not the July 31 Opening Show as previously thought both by RCA and a subsequent bootlegger. They apparently keyed in on the line, “This is my first live appearance in nine years,” which Elvis actually stated at every full show thus far released at this engagement, while skipping his “It’s hard to get going on these dinner shows” comment that makes it clear some fatigue is already setting in for Elvis in Vegas.

Certainly he would not have said this at his first-ever Dinner Show on August 1, nor was he likely even to say it at the August 2 Dinner Show. Assuming this is not a splice of two shows, the August 3 Dinner Show seems to be the prevailing hypothesis among many fans. That still seems too early to me.

Since I refrain from bootlegs, I am no expert on the unofficial recordings available from this era. Certainly the arrangement of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is a clue here, since it differs from the later versions. That may indicate an upper end to the range of possible dates, but I do not know exactly when that arrangement changed.

There is another clue. When introducing “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis states that it “should be out in a week or 10 days or so.” RCA released “Suspicious Minds” on August 26. Though Elvis was probably not speaking literally, a week to 10 days before the release would put us in the range of August 16 to 19. If it turned out that this concert took place closer to those dates and farther from August 3, it would not surprise me at all.

No matter the date, this is an enjoyable release, and it is definitely of historic value to Elvis fans. If you already have the multitrack shows, then you should purchase this CD. If not, I recommend you buy the professional multitrack shows from this engagement first. Each of these concerts has provided me hours of enjoyment, and I have no doubt that The Return To Vegas will ultimately do the same.

While the 1969 concerts are incredible, my favorite Vegas engagement took place a year later. With a more varied set list, Elvis seemed more relaxed in August 1970. For me, the shows captured for That’s The Way It Is are somehow even better than 1969. The Dinner Show presented on The Return To Vegas is actually but an appetizer for what is to come next week. I am ready for the main course!

Tracks

01. Blue Suede Shoes
02. I Got A Woman
03. All Shook Up
04. Love Me Tender
05. Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel
06. Heartbreak Hotel
07. Hound Dog
08. Memories
09. Mystery Train/Tiger Man
10. Monologue *
11. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight
13. Yesterday/Hey Jude
14. Introductions
15. In The Ghetto
16. Suspicious Minds
17. What’d I Say
18. Can’t Help Falling In Love

* Previously released

Elvis conquers Vegas in 1969 with FTD

Cover concept art for THE RETURN TO VEGAS CD

Cover concept art for THE RETURN TO VEGAS CD. One hopes this amateurish effort will be replaced by time of release.

Follow That Dream will soon release the earliest known recording from the 1969 Las Vegas engagement that helped reignite Elvis Presley’s career. Add this news to Sony’s 10-disc That’s The Way It Is: Deluxe Edition set (track listing for that coming in my next post) and Warner Home Video’s That’s The Way It Is: Special Edition Blu-ray set coming in August, and 2014 is truly the return of the “Elvis Summer Festival.”

The Return To Vegas features an undated soundboard recording from early August 1969. RCA’s formal recordings of the concert series did not begin until later that month. FTD, Sony’s collectors label for Elvis fans, plans to release the show in late June – meaning it probably will not reach most consumers until sometime in July.

Though it has made the rounds on bootleg, this marks the first official release of the show – other than an entertaining monologue track previously included on the notorious 1974 album Having Fun With Elvis On Stage.

This early August soundboard recording is probably the closest we will ever come to hearing the legendary July 31, 1969, show that opened the engagement, so this has been one of my most anticipated concert releases. What a summer this will be.

Below is the press release from FTD, as well as the track listing.

[The Return To Vegas] is the official release of the soundboard recording that Joan Deary planned as a double album release back in the late seventies. It’s the earliest known professional recording from Elvis’ 1969 engagement in Las Vegas. The original tape box has “opening night” written on the back, but that’s not the real date. Some experts believe it’s from August 3, but we have no information whatsoever to suggest a certain date.

However, the arrangements seem to suggest that this show is definitely several days earlier than the shows RCA recorded from August 20 and onwards. Why Joan Deary edited and mastered this for release is another mystery, since she of course had all the shows RCA recorded on 8-track tape with audio in substantially better quality. This release comes in a 7″ digi-pack with a 12-page booklet, featuring great photos from the collections of Steve Barile & Jim Patino, and a foreword by Ken Sharp.

Tracks

01. Blue Suede Shoes
02. I Got A Woman
03. All Shook Up
04. Love Me Tender
05. Jailhouse Rock/Don’t Be Cruel
06. Heartbreak Hotel
07. Hound Dog
08. Memories
09. Mystery Train/Tiger Man
10. Monologue *
11. Baby, What You Want Me To Do
12. Are You Lonesome Tonight
13. Yesterday/Hey Jude
14. Introductions
15. In The Ghetto
16. Suspicious Minds
17. What’d I Say
18. Can’t Help Falling In Love

* Previously released

“To @!#?@! with the Hilton Hotel . . . the Showroom, too”

A few weeks ago, I purchased a batch of Follow That Dream CDs, and I’ve been working my way through them. By far, the most interesting is one I’ve been spinning this week.

Closing Night (2004)Closing Night is actually a 2004 release. For reasons that have escaped my memory, I didn’t pick this one up back then.

Maybe it was the poorly Photoshopped cover that turned me off. Though if cover art were a real consideration for me, I fear much of my Elvis collection wouldn’t be here.

Or, maybe I was worried that this notorious show was a train wreck.

More than likely, though, it was probably a budgetary consideration. Though I support FTD, I can’t afford to buy every single release. Instead, I pick and choose.

In any event, I can explain why I finally purchased this CD. Back in July, Elvis super fan Ian Fraser mentioned this show in a comment to a post here on The Mystery Train Blog. His enthusiasm made me want to try out Closing Night.

The Closing Night CD actually contains selections from two September 3, 1973, concerts at the Hilton Hotel’s Showroom in Las Vegas. Tracks 1 through 7 are from the Dinner Show, while tracks 8 through 25 are from the Midnight Show (the actual closing show that Ian mentions in his comments).

It’s definitely an unusual show, but not a train wreck by any means. It’s intriguing to hear Elvis uncharacteristically blowing off steam while on stage. Plus, there are great live versions of “Trouble” and “My Boy,” not to mention “Bridge Over Suspicious Minds” and the spoken word only version of “Softly, As I Leave You.”

What have you been listening to this week?