Acer Arena, Sydney Australia, Saturday October 14, 2006
Having seen the earlier version of Elvis The Concert back in '99 at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, I'd been looking forward to the band's return for some time. Sure, they'd been back to Australia since, but I never wanted to see them perform with anyone but Elvis (no disrespect intended for Mick Gerace here, but it simply wouldn't have been right, somehow).
So, after counting down the 13 weeks between ticket purchase and actual performance, I made my way to Acer Arena in the heart of Sydney's Olympic centre, about 25km from the city centre and where I live. The first thing I'll remember about the night is the stinking heat: it was Sydney's first real taste of summer for the year, and the temperature had only fallen to 39 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees in the old language), even as 8pm rolled around.
Ticket - Elvis Presley In Concert - Melbourne Australia 2006
Ticket - Elvis Presley In Concert - Sydney Australia 2006
I'd arrived around 6pm in order to claim some souvenirs. A good thing I did too, as they sold out pretty quickly. They'd run out of bags, so I took my souvenirs back to the car, which was luckily only a five-minute walk from the front entrance. The souvenir program was of high quality and, for once, justified the $20 price tag. I was pleased to see it was free from advertising, save only for one page promoting Graceland enterprises. Some of the pictures were rare, and all were printed right-way-round. Aren't you sick of seeing pictures of Elvis back-to-front in magazines? And despite a couple of typos, the program was a treat. I could've done without seeing the TCB sunglasses for sale, and what anyone would want with an Elvis fluoro light is beyond me. But people lapped the stuff up, which was good to see.
So, after dropping my souvenirs back to the car, I returned to line up for the exhibition of Elvis costumes. A good thing I'd arrived early, as it took me 48 minutes to snake through the line. Although I was lucky enough to have seen the same suits at Graceland back in 1988, it was lovely to see them so close to home, and they were a lot cleaner and brighter this time. There was a man of about my age with his son in front of me, and as we stood in front of the Owl suit, the kid asked his dad, 'Why did Elvis wear funny suits like that?' The father replied, 'Because he was the King, that's why.' The kid thought about it, looked back at the Owl, looked up at his dad, looked back at the Owl again and finally said, 'Well, I wanna be the King, then!' I thought, 'Good response, kid!'.
Okay, some of you will accuse me of being pedantic here. There was a costume displayed - the one featured on the cover of the Madison Square Garden album - right next to a copy of the LP itself. The label said Elvis wore the costume at one of his New York shows, but this was not the case at all. The album photo was taken two months prior to the New York gigs, and Elvis wore other jumpsuits at these shows. It's a small point to some of you, but irritating to those of us who like to see things absolutely right. And there were some spelling mistakes on the exhibit's labels as well, which was simply inexcusable.
It's a cliche I know, but the crowd really was all ages and types. The youngest I saw was a beautiful little girl of about six (wearing a pink Elvis cap) and an old man who was probably in his mid-eighties being helped to his seat. Many had some quite tasteful Elvis-themed shirts (yes, they do exist) and I was amused to see that the three or four clowns who'd turned up in mock jumpsuits were booed and hissed by the respectful crowd, although jokingly. Personally, I think all impersonators and anyone who dresses like Elvis should be hunted for sport, but that's another article altogether.
So, to the show. I'd never been to Acer Arena before. The state government in New South Wales decreed a while back that most big acts should perform out at the Olympic venues, in one of several arenas, so as to prevent the Olympic complex being a white elephant. Acer is much better than the Sydney Entertainment Centre, whose acoustics and views were always terrible unless you were right up close. The government is talking about tearing down the Entertainment Centre, and I now say 'Go for it'. I was very surprised to see a lot of unsold (or at least empty) seats, and in all sections as well.
My seat was in the middle section, about 20 rows back. Just perfect. Close enough to see the guys, and Elvis on the big screens. I honestly wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, not even the front row. Way too close to enjoy to full 'interactive' video experience. I purposely hadn't played or watched Elvis in the weeks leading up to the show, and my strategy proved right: it made it even more special as I was hanging out for the man and his music.
The lights dimmed, and the crowd exploded. I am a deeply cynical and questioning person, but for a moment - just for a moment - I let my mind wander as the 2001 theme started playing, and pretended it was the real Elvis coming out. Just for a moment, anyway ...
And before I knew it, the band was on stage, the crowd was going bonkers, and there they were: the TCB Band in all their glory. Older, sure, but then who isn't? Joe Guercio's iconic three-note entrance theme set everyone off, and when Elvis finally sang, 'Oh see, see rider', the crowd let out a huge collective yell of happiness (and possibly relief that the whole thing actually worked).
It was soon apparent that the Aloha From Hawaii footage used was from the latest video release, which was pleasing. At first, I was slightly disappointed James Burton didn't use his famous pink paisley guitar, and the TCB sound was somehow different. But it worked. And, after all, if Elvis himself had been there, he wouldn't have had exactly the same sound as thirty-odd years ago.
In short, the TCB Band were rocking, and rocking well.
Burning Love had everyone singing along, especially during the final 'hunka hunka' bit, and then it was straight into Steamroller Blues. Always a favourite, and it was good to see the show used songs like this, ones that most people wouldn't have known Elvis sang. 'What? Okay, I'll do 'em. All 429 of 'em, I'll do 'em', Elvis said in reference to his huge catalogue of songs before launching into Love Me. The bit where he hits the microphone onto his chest proved an amusing hit with the audience.
Perhaps they should have used the That's The Way It Is (Special Edition) for I Can't Stop Loving You, which was next. Although the Aloha version is good, it simply can't compete. Again, another song most don't associate with the King. And wonderful nonetheless.
By this stage, the crowd were totally into it. You know how some music gigs are fizzers, and you can tell immediately? It was just the opposite here. Even the dodgy air-conditioning didn't seem to faze us, and the sweat pouring off my brow helped me to relate to Elvis on stage just that little bit more. But I don't think anyone was fighting over my tissue after I wiped my forehead.
After the band introductions (possibly a little bit too early in the show, I thought), it was Chuck Berry's classic Johnny B. Goode. When I first saw the TCB Band in 99, it was a wonderful surprise when, during this song, the band engaged in extended music solos. And it was great they did it again this time, and it was still a bit of a surprise. These guys are a bloody great band when all is said and done, and this 21st century concert is a way for their individual talents to be acknowledged. In the 70s, I think they were often overshadowed by the hype around Elvis, which is understandable. After Ronnie Tutt blasted us into the back rows, on came Elvis again without missing a beat. Top stuff.
You Gave Me A Mountain: this has always been my absolute favourite of Elvis' 70s majestic-type ballads, and - in over 30 years - has never dropped out of my list of Top 5 Elvis songs of all time. The band nailed it, and during the final 'gave me a moun-taaaaiin - this - tiiiiime', the audience was completely silent waiting for the big climax, so you got to hear Elvis' vocal and the band really play as one. Just great, and for me, the first of many shivers down the spine for the evening.
It was then time to say goodbye to the Aloha footage and go back three years to 1970. Ronnie played his famous riff, then Elvis was back on stage for That's All Right. Although it was just great to see and hear the song, I think it would have worked better as the first song for Act II, to have Elvis returning to the stage after intermission. Just a thought anyhow.
Three fifties classics then took the audience even farther back in time. It was a very cool idea to use brief 50s footage of Elvis shaking his hips during Hound Dog on the smaller screens as well. Then it was into Don't Be Cruel. Heartbreak Hotel was fabulous, and the music even bordered on sleazy, but it a good way.
Up next was the rarest footage of the night. We'd only seen Are You Lonesome Tonight run over the end credits of TTWII (SE) - and on some Australian TV versions of the movie. Elvis' vocal is very strong, and it is one of his best live versions. I'm not sure if it was planned or not, but during Elvis' joke lyric 'Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair', the camera flashed to James Burton who - like most of us guys - is follically-challenged compared to over 30 years ago. It seemed as if Elvis was having some fun with James and the audience loved it. The footage could have been better though. Like I said, it was from the TTWII (SE) credits, but they had simply zoomed in to remove the movie credits, as opposed to digitalising the virgin footage. So it seemed slightly out of focus in comparison to what had been seen thus far.
The nostalgia-fest continued with All Shook Up and Blue Suede Shoes, and then it was Love Me Tender. For me, this was the only song of the night which didn't work. Perhaps it was my ear, but for the first couple of seconds, the band was slightly out of time and they worked to get back on track. It is a relatively quiet song, and the audience and musical 'bleeding' from the original footage was all too apparent. Also, they had thrown in some Elvis comments to the audience from other songs and the bleeding hiss was even worse. The illusion was momentarily shattered, but everyone seemed to enjoy it anyway. And why wouldn't they?
In The Ghetto was special. As Elvis sang, the smaller screens were used to show early footage and pictures of Elvis' childhood and early years. There were several pics of Elvis as a teen and young man that I'd never seen before, which was a lovely surprise. And while Elvis wasn't exactly born in a ghetto, he was as poor and disadvantaged as any American has ever been, which makes his incredible journey all the more amazing. It's a pity he never sang Ghetto live more often.
Up next, the latest configuration of The Stamps sang Sweet, Sweet Spirit, complete with Elvis' 'I don't sing in this, so just please listen to them' intro. I am a complete atheist and have never believed in any God in my life, not even as a child. But I'm here to tell you the song moved me. The audience were quiet and respectful, and the applause at the end was deafening. This led nicely into How Great Thou Art. In 1999, there was no video footage used, but this time the 1972 version from 'The Lost Performances' got a look-in. Powerful stuff, and well received by the crowd.
If I Can Dream (from the end of the '68 Special) completed Act I, and it was interesting to hear the TCB Band's take on this. It's a shame Elvis never did this live as the arrangement was very good. The lights then came up, and it was intermission. The first half had just flown by.
On the way out, I eavesdropped on people's conversations and heard comments such as 'Wasn't he beautiful?', 'They still play great', and even one pregnant woman saying to her partner, 'Well if you're not enjoying it, catch the bloody train home and I'll see you later!' Nice one, honey. There were smiles all round too. Then it was back outside, where the heat had fallen by maybe just two degrees, and it was still filthy. The band may have been working hard, but not as hard as the air-con inside Acer Arena I think.
After 20 minutes, I returned to my seat ready for Act II. On the big screen, the videos for the remixes of A Little Less Conversation and Rubberneckin' were played. Well, not the full videos mind you, but just half of each. Strange. As I watched, I thought it would have been cool to have the band play along to Conversation in the second half. They could have really had some fun and injected a 21st century sound into the proceedings. Although Elvis never did it live, it really could have been something special I think.
Act II began with Myrna Smith and the latest configuration of the Sweet Inspirations singing their signature hit, Sweet Inspiration. Myrna is lovelier than ever, and I could have easily sat through a few more songs from the girls. Then the King was back with Trouble, from the '68 Special. This drew wild applause, and perhaps some footage from the black leather shows would have fitted in well here.
Then, it was back to Vegas 1970 with Polk Salad Annie. The TCB Band used the 1976-77 arrangement, and the beginning of the track was punctuated with horns. The crowd were clapping along enthusiastically to this sensual favourite. The false finish seemed to surprise a lot of the audience too. One of Elvis' best, both in 1970 and 2006.
A new musical arrangement breathed fresh life into You've Lost That Loving Feeling, and original Elvis keyboardist Ron Feuer turned it into something special. And very different. It worked well, even though it wasn't as sexy as the original 1970 style. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me was popular as well.
Up next, my all-time favourite live track, the medley of Mystery Train / Tiger Man. Again, rather than using digitalised footage, they had simply zoomed in using the opening-credit footage from TTWII (SE) and it looked slightly out of focus, like Lonesome Tonight. A pity. And it was here that the absence of the pink paisley guitar was felt. James Burton's latest axe has a more country twang to it. But the song still worked, and I was greatly pleased to have heard it live.
While we're on the subject of playing live, I would have just about killed to have heard the band do I Got A Woman from TTWII (SE). Oh well, it's nice to still have a dream or two tucked away.
Bridge Over Troubled Water was next, and here I discovered that the show was not using any choir this time. Back in '99, the choir gave Bridge and An American Trilogy that something extra, although both songs were brilliant anyway. No choir in Sydney, and none in Melbourne my sources tell me; maybe they were used in other shows, I don't know. Anyway, Bridge got the first standing ovation of the night and it was magnificent. 'I didn't know he sang that', I heard a girl in front of me say.
The opening bars of The Wonder of You made all the women in the audience sigh, and didn't they love it. A beautiful song indeed, never too schmaltzy, and popular with the crowd.
Suspicious Minds followed, and I was pleased to see they used the original TTWII version. Although the TTWII (SE) version was great, there's just something about the one we first saw that makes it great. I think it's the Elvis shoulder-shaking to Ronnie's drum beats at the very end that makes me love this so much, and the band absolutely killed on this song. The timing was perfect, and it was standing ovation number two at the final beat. Loved it.
Then, the mood was taken down a notch, and the Aloha incarnation of Elvis returned to the stage. I'll Remember You is a beautiful song, and the smaller screens showed Elvis having fun with his bandmates, while the other cameras were on the band as they are today. I could hear a few people crying quietly as this song played, and the overall effect was both sad and happy: sad because it reminded us again that the man himself is no longer here (at least not physically) but happy because the music still lingers, and everyone felt that.
And yes, even this hard-nosed, cynical journalist who has covered shootings, child drownings, murders and race riots had a genuine tear in his eye. But I'll deny it to your face if ever I meet you.
What Now My Love: I've never been a fan of this one, not even Elvis' version. I would have liked to have seen another substitution this time around, but the drama of the song appeared to please the audience.
Nostalgia ruled again for the next few minutes with the medley of Long Tall Sally / Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. The crowd loved these, and the applause continued for a rousing version of A Big Hunk O' Love.
That was the last rock'n'roll for the night, as the Sinatra classic My Way came next. Only Elvis and Sinatra could ever get away with this track (Sex Pistols? No thanks). Powerful, majestic and a perfect lead-in to the next song, the highlight of the night.
When James' opening riff to An American Trilogy rang out, the crowd let out a huge cheer. But as soon as Elvis started, they remained silent. For such a small group, the TCB Band can make a big sound when they want to, and they absolutely nailed Trilogy; it turned out to be the best live version I've ever heard. During the flute solo, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. After the flautist had finished, there was a smattering of applause as the band built to its crescendo. It was tense, it was powerful and just bloody magnificent. 'His truth is marching oooooooonnn -' rang out, the final loud note of the music reverberated around Acer; then for a millisecond there was total silence.
And then the place absolutely exploded. Huge cheers, everyone up on their feet screaming. Standing ovation number three. Trilogy was done and dusted, well and truly. Nothing - and I mean nothing - could have followed it. Just extraordinary, and the applause continued right through Elvis' farewell and introduction to Can't Help Falling In Love. Although the show had to end, Trilogy was simply unsurpassable, and the perfect way to climax the concert.
The crowd remained standing for Can't Help Falling In Love, and we all sang along and moved our arms in the air to the slow beat. As 'with yooooo-ooo-oo-uu' echoed through Acer, Ronnie's drum beat took hold and the band's three-note Elvis theme played the King off.
And then, it was over. When the announcement was made that 'Elvis has left the building', the entire crowd let out a mock-sad 'Awwwwww', then everyone laughed. I made my way to the front - almost tripping head-over-heals as I leapt over the first now-empty rows of chairs - and managed to shake hands with most of the band and to say a very sincere thank-you to each of them.
Out into the still-stifling heat, with a huge grin on my face. It was well worth the wait, and the expense. Elvis Presley In Concert is promoted as the closest thing anybody could ever get to see Elvis on stage. True enough. But I'm betting that, in many ways, it's still a million miles from the power and wonder of the real thing.
Like I said, it's nice to still have a dream or two tucked away.
Elvis Presley In Concert toured Australia in October 2006 performing to legions of Elvis fans in Perth (6th), Adelaide (8th), Melbourne (10th), Brisbane (12th) and Sydney (14th).
We have two unused original tickets to the Sydney Concert for sale.
The original Elvis band mates in this production were: Joe Guercio (musical director/conductor), Myrna Smith (vocals) of The Sweet Inspirations, Ed Enoch (vocals) of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, and the TCB Band : James Burton (lead guitar), Glen D. Hardin (piano), Jerry Scheff (bass guitar), and Ronnie Tutt (drums).