Elvis In Concert: Live On Screen at the Manchester Arena

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve written here, hasn’t it? I’m afraid that UK politics has been so much of a complete shitstorm for the last few months that I haven’t wanted to say anything about it other than “aaaaargh!”, I’ve not been well enough to get to the comics shop frequently enough to write about comics in a timely manner, and most importantly I’ve been writing five thousand words a week of text for the podcast, so any other music-related stuff gets subsumed by that.

(I have been writing some other stuff too, which will be coming out in book form at various points soonish…)

So today, in a total change, I’m going to write about a 1950s rock and roll star. I’m going to talk about the “Elvis In Concert Live On Screen” tour…

There has been a spate, recently, of “hologram” tours, where famous dead musicians “go on tour”. With the exception of the Frank Zappa one (which featured most of Zappa’s eighties band, and was largely a show by them with occasional bits by the “hologram”, so was closer to the kind of thing that the other groups of Zappa alumni do) I have nothing but contempt for these shows — they’re a con trick played on the audience. Both the Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly ones, for example, have images that are neither holograms nor actually images of the original performers. They are, in fact, just uses of the 19th century stage illusion Pepper’s Ghost, with film footage played onto a sheet of glass — and that footage is not of Orbison or Holly, but of impersonators who don’t look much like them, in bad wigs and glasses, lipsynching to their records. Telling the audiences at these things that they’re going to be seeing Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison is, in my mind, something that should be prosecutable as fraud.

But the first of these shows was the Elvis one, which started twenty-two years ago, and that was slightly more respectable, in that it used actual live video footage of Elvis, on screens, with no attempt made to pretend that an impersonator is really Elvis. When it started, it also used Elvis’ original seventies live band, the TCB Band, and I always said that I would go and see that show, if it came to Manchester and I could go, because Elvis’ seventies live band contained some of the finest musicians around — people like James Burton, who as well as playing with Elvis played on a ton of records by artists I love, everyone from Gram Parsons to the Monkees — and I would jump at the chance of seeing them even if they were backing a video of Elvis rather than just playing with another singer, as I would prefer.

But then, before I had a chance, they changed that show, so instead of being with the TCB Band it was a bunch of random session players, and I never saw the point of seeing that show — I owned the actual performances they were using anyway, so if I wanted to see Elvis performing “An American Trilogy” in Hawaii I could just watch the Aloha From Hawaii show, or if I wanted to see him performing Suspicious Minds in Vegas, I could just watch That’s The Way It Is.

Using musicians other than the TCB Band seemed a particularly bad idea to me, because a big part of the appeal of Elvis as an artist was the way he interacted with the musicians backing him — not the onstage banter, or anything like that, but the way he would fit his voice into the arrangements, and the way the instrumentalists took their rhythmic cues from him. That’s something that could theoretically be recreated by the original musicians playing to his vocal tracks, though it would never be the same as having them work together live, but the further you get away from the original musicians who were there when he recorded the vocals, the less point I could see to it.

And then the shows got another step away from anything I would pay to see — over the last couple of years, the Royal Philharmonic has released three albums where they’ve performed new backing tracks to Elvis’ vocals. I consider this *immensely* disrespectful of Elvis as an artist, in ways I find hard to articulate without descending into outright abuse. His vocal performances were designed for a particular musical setting, and one would presume that he would have made different choices had he been performing with different musicians. It’s not just like colourising Citizen Kane, more like digitally extracting Orson Welles from the film and placing that same performance in a Michael Bay Transformers film or something.

The most recent iterations of the Elvis “tour” had been to tie in with those recordings, and had the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra strumming their way through the muzaky rearrangements while the video footage of Elvis and his isolated vocals played. I don’t regard those shows as anything like the con trick that the “hologram” tours are, but they have the same artistic problem I just mentioned.

Please note here that I’m not treating this as a moral problem, but an aesthetic one. If you like those albums or shows, then good for you — you have one more thing in your life to enjoy, and that’s always better than not having something to enjoy. But they were very, very much not for me.

But then, this year, they announced yet another iteration — and this time the surviving and still-performing members of the TCB Band (James Burton on guitar, Glen D Hardin on piano, and Ronnie Tutt on drums) would be touring along with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra (note that this is not the same thing as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, despite how the show is promoted — it’s the RPO’s sister organisation that performs pop music, light classical, and so on).

As this would almost certainly be the only chance I would ever get to see those musicians live, and I have fairly profound regrets at the number of other great musicians who I’ve missed seeing, I decided to put aside my misgivings and go along.

Now, before I go any further, something that people attending these shows might find useful to know — the official tour programme is incorrect as to how much involvement the TCB Band have in the show. When I got to the venue, I was devastated to discover that the programme listed them as performing on only four songs — the last four in the first half. Given that it was them I was there to see, this was a huge disappointment.

But in fact, in the second half, they returned for another six songs, so the TCB Band performed on a third of the songs performed, and for a little over a third of the running time (they played on some of the longer songs). It was still odd during the rest of the show to see footage of them with Elvis while the orchestra played, and to know that the people who had played those parts were sat backstage when they could have been on stage playing them, but they were a significant part of the show, not just the brief guest appearance that the programme suggested.

(I mention this in part because I was seriously considering leaving in the interval, since their part of the show was apparently over, in the hope that it prevents anyone else from actually doing that and missing the best part of the show).

Now, my review may be coloured by the fact that I had a terrible, terrible headache on the night of the show, and when I’m feeling ill I always get more analytical and less emotionally engaged, so before I start I’ll make two points. One is that of the four main criticisms I will make of the show, the person I was sat next to had three of them — and he had been to four different iterations of this “Elvis live on screen” show. The other is that despite any criticisms I have, the audience — somewhere around fifteen thousand people, at a rough estimate — seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, and gave multiple standing ovations. So weigh all these things when deciding how to take this review.

The decision I made for how to enjoy the show was to treat it — at least those parts without the TCB Band — not as a live performance (because the main star clearly wasn’t there) but rather as something like a cinema showing of Elvis concert footage. In fact what the show reminded me most of in this regard was the 2010 “Arena Spectacular” live Doctor Who show which I attended, though without the people dressed as Cybermen wandering through the audience (there were people dressed as Elvis in the audience, but they were cosplayers rather than part of the show) — that too was largely focused around orchestral music and visual spectacle, and had its main star only appearing through video footage.

The show got off to a very poor start. First Priscilla Presley came out and introduced things, and… rambling is the kindest possible description I can give for her introduction. She was flat-out incoherent, and clearly had not prepared anything to say. She’s been introducing these shows for twenty-two years now, but seemed about as well rehearsed as I would have been had I been asked to introduce the show at the last minute.

And the first song, “Burning Love”, was a bit of a car crash. I mentioned above that one of the ways in which Elvis’ artistry showed was his interaction with the musicians backing him. In particular, when performing live, he had a very strong rapport with Ronnie Tutt, the drummer, which allowed the band’s tempo to ebb and flow naturally, so choruses might be taken at a slightly faster tempo than verses, and songs might speed up towards the end, but, crucially, never in a way that sounded wrong. I am *extremely* sensitive to fluctuations in tempo, and I never notice them in Elvis’ live performances, because those fluctuations are about reinforcing the groove of the music.

However, when you take just the vocal track of one of those performances, and try to have a live band play to it, you have to rely on a click track, and on the rhythmic senses of an entirely different set of musicians. In this case it was made worse by the fact that the performance of “Burning Love” they used (as far as I recall — my memory may not be great here) was the version from the Aloha From Hawaii concert. That’s a great show, but they rather rushed “Burning Love” in that performance — Elvis was famously nervous about performing on the first ever satellite broadcast live concert, and the tempos of a few of the early songs in that show are taken faster than was ideal.

The result of combining that vocal performance with the orchestra was that while the orchestra was *on average* keeping time with Elvis, a good chunk of the time it sounded like they were going slower than him, while at other points they sounded like they were rushing to try to catch back up with him. It was the precise opposite of the organic interaction between singer and musicians that characterised Elvis’ best performances, and was everything I had feared the show would be.

Thankfully, not every song was like that. In general, the songs where the TCB Band were on stage were rather better than the songs where they weren’t, and when the orchestra was there without the TCB Band they sounded much better on the ballads, which tended to have much less rhythmic variation in their performance, than on the more uptempo songs. It still spoiled a couple of the tracks, though — and the worst offender coming first meant that I was primed to look for faults during the rest of the show.

However, after that abysmal opening, I was able to settle back and appreciate the show for what it actually was. There was, however, one further avoidable annoyance, which might only have annoyed me out of the entire crowd. The recordings they used of Elvis’ vocal track were ducked after every line of vocal (sometimes swallowing a spoken aside, incidentally). This makes sense, as there would presumably have been all sorts of leakage on the open mic when he wasn’t singing, which would be an absolute nightmare for a sound engineer and for the band trying to play along. However, it caused noticeable changes in the sonic ambience — most obviously, there is tape hiss on the vocals, and to have the hiss cutting out after each line and then coming back in with the next bit of vocals made it *much* more noticeable than if it had been at a consistent level throughout a song. If I’d been the engineer in charge of preparing the audio tracks, I’d paste in some “silence” from the ambient room noise in those places, so you’d have a consistent audio environment throughout each song.

I may, however, be literally the only person out of fifteen thousand or so in the audience who noticed that — having spent much of the last year editing podcasts (my own and other people’s) makes me much more sensitive to that kind of thing than many people would be (though I’ve always had an ear for that kind of thing anyway — I remember complaining about a similar issue on a Beach Boys CD that came out in 1998…)

One other thing I should point out here, which I think is a bit of dishonesty on the part of the promoters of the show — Priscilla stated, several times, during her introductions, that Elvis always wanted to play with an orchestra and never got the chance. This is, at best, disingenuous. Just compare the lineup of musicians on the Aloha From Hawaii show (the principal source for Elvis’ vocals here):

Eight brass, twelve strings, five woodwinds (sax, with two doubling on flute), plus percussion, Hammond organ, and Elvis’ standard rhythm section of piano, two guitars, bass, and drums

With the lineup of the orchestra here:

Six brass, fourteen strings, four woodwinds (clarinet), harp, keyboard, two guitars, bass, drums, and three percussionists.

I don’t think there’s any sensible way to call one of those and not the other a “full orchestra”. “Get the sax players to play clarinet instead, swap two of the brass players for extra cellos, swap the Hammond organ for a harp, and add a couple of percussionists” isn’t a major qualitative change to the instrumentation. Indeed, overall, there were *fewer* performers on stage here than at the Hawaii show, as rather than have nine backing vocalists (the white gospel quartet J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the black gospel trio the Sweet Inspirations, and soprano Kathy Westmoreland) there were only three on stage.

But that means that, with a few differences (and barring the lack of vocalists), the sound of the orchestral arrangements was almost identical to that of the arrangements Elvis had used in the Aloha concerts from which the bulk of the footage came, and so it was easy, for big chunks of the show, to forget that the orchestra playing the backing music was meant to be significantly different from the musicians Elvis had performed with. When the core of the TCB band were on stage, indeed, it was perfectly plausible that these *would* be musicians Elvis played with — since, other than his rhythm section and backing vocalists, he played with local orchestral musicians when he toured, just hiring whatever strings and horns were available in the city where he was performing. He cared who his drummer, guitarist, and so on were to a far greater extent than he cared who was in the string or horn sections.

So when the TCB Band weren’t on stage, I treated it as a big-screen show of some of the most famous Elvis concert footage — and it *was* made up of his most famous footage, stuff that most Elvis fans will have seen many times.

There were three major sources for the footage of Elvis used in the show. The main single source was Aloha From Hawaii — somewhere around a third of the show came from that single show (possibly some of it came from the rehearsal show the day before, which had the same setlist, had Elvis wearing the same jumpsuit, and was in the same venue — that show is now available on the same DVD as the regular show, and while I’m familiar with them, I’m not so familiar that I could be one hundred percent sure I could identify which of the two I was seeing at any given time).

The other big source was That’s The Way It Is, the documentary film that followed Elvis for three months in 1970 and featured several of his performances in Las Vegas at the International Hotel. Almost all the rest of the footage came from that film (and the outtakes filmed for it).

There was also some use of the 1968 Comeback Special — only from the big production numbers (where he was lipsynching to prerecorded tracks) and the footage of him alone in the black leather suit, singing live but to prerecorded backing tracks. None of the footage of him jamming with Scotty and DJ (the core of that show, for me at least) was used — presumably because it would be impossible to extract his vocals and synch them to a live band.

While the Comeback Special is probably Elvis’ finest hour as a performer, and the image of him in the black leather jumpsuit is one of the few occasions where the much-abused word “iconic” actually applies, I actually think that, at least in this particular venue, using it was a mistake. The vocal tracks used were slathered in reverb, and when they blasted out into that gigantic space (I believe the Manchester Arena is the largest indoor arena in Europe), the result was an echoey mess. This is not the fault of the performance, but of the acoustics of the venue — and what surprised me more was how *little* that was the case for the rest of the show. The Manchester Arena is not a great space for music, but mostly the sound was surprisingly good.

Finally, a couple of minor sources were used — for “Love Me Tender” they used footage of Elvis performing the song in the film, and I *think* I have a vague memory of one song being from the 1972 film Elvis On Tour, just an idea in my head that some of what I saw had him in the blue jumpsuit he wore for some performances in that. But if they did use that, it was for at most one song — unsurprisingly, since of the major sources of Elvis performances (other than the horribly upsetting 1977 CBS special) it’s the one where he looks the least healthy.

So, after… three thousand words in which I haven’t got past the first song yet… I should probably start to talk about the music in general, shouldn’t I?

As I said, I treated those songs where the orchestra alone was backing Elvis as essentially just watching a performance in the cinema, and in that respect it worked very well. The first block of songs, after the disaster that was “Burning Love”, was mostly enjoyable, though that run of songs had none of my personal favourite Elvis songs (and some arsehole behind me did his best to wreck “Welcome to My World” by shouting “can’t we just stay here?” every. single. time. the title line was sung).

The one time the orchestra definitely enhanced things was “Fever”, where the new arrangement made far better use of the instrumental colours available to an orchestra than the original. Otherwise, a casual listener would probably not have noticed any difference, but on that song they really added to the feel of the song.

Otherwise, it was mostly a reminder of what an astonishing performer Elvis was — not just as a singer, but as a physical presence. And not just the charisma everyone talks about, but the *humour* of the man shone through.

I’ve always thought that one of the big things that people miss about seventies Elvis is that while there is definitely something ridiculous about the jumpsuits and the general level of kitsch, and while Elvis was an *utterly sincere* performer, he also had a keen sense of the ridiculousness of everything he was doing. Elvis’ performances in the early seventies actually remind me of Umberto Eco’s description of postmodernism — that a writer like Barbara Cartland could write “I love you madly”, but that a modernist writer would recognise the ridiculous, cliched nature of the statement and avoid it, but by avoiding it they would end up unable to talk about real emotion. A *postmodernist*, on the other hand, would say “As Barbara Cartland might say, ‘I love you madly'”, and thus acknowledge the cliche and the absurdity, but also be able once again to talk about actual love.

Elvis throughout his career flitted between the first and third modes, often almost in a superposition of the two. This is one reason why his critical reputation took a dive and never recovered — while rock critics claim to prize “authenticity”, the authentic expressions they appreciate are outnumbered by the modernists, and many of them have never progressed as far as understanding postmodernism in this sense.

(I can think of only a handful of other postmodernist-in-this-sense artists — Mick Jagger, who I think is the closest to Elvis but who does it badly; Frank Zappa, whose early work was so misunderstood that he eventually fell into being exactly the kind of joyless sneerer his most hostile critics accused him of being; Randy Newman; maybe Nilsson; and the Turtles).

If you watch any footage of Elvis in the seventies — the way he reacts to the audience, the way he reacts to how the audience are reacting to him — it becomes very clear that he is absolutely invested in the emotional message of the music he’s performing, but also absolutely aware of how ridiculous everything about it is. People talk about Elvis having a natural charm and charisma, and a natural ability, and he was certainly hugely charming — but what I see in footage of Elvis at his peak as a performer, between 1968 and 1974, before ill health started to rob him of his concentration, is someone who is absolutely in control — an *intelligent* artist and performer in a way few people, even fans of his, will really give him credit for. And that came across, absolutely, in the footage shown on the big screen.

After the first run of songs, we had a few of the seventies classics (including “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, which was clearly the most popular song of the first half among the audience, a version of “How Great Thou Art” that to my ears (and based on the *heavy* editing of the footage) cut halfway from being a live recording to being the studio one (and which was still, despite the clunky editing, magnificent), and then James Burton, Glen Hardin, and Ronnie Tutt came out and played with the orchestra for a short set of “Blue Suede Shoes”, “You Gave Me A Mountain”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

Or, at least, Burton and Hardin played. Ronnie Tutt spent the first two songs alternating between tapping the rim of one snare drum with a stick and playing the hi-hat, and fiddling with a device to his side. I suspect the device by his side was something to do with him being able to hear the tracks, because after the first couple of songs he started playing properly — though still not playing any of the fills, just keeping the basic rhythm while the orchestra’s drummer played all the complicated parts. And to my ears he might not have been in the sound mix at all.

The same thing happened when the TCB Band members joined for the run of songs at the end of the second set — Tutt taking a couple of songs to get warmed up, and never playing very much even when he did. Both Burton and Hardin were playing well — both took solos and had moments to shine. The orchestra’s keyboard player did a lot of the basic accompaniment work during the songs, leaving Hardin to play just ornamentation and solos, but he still sounded like himself, and Burton was every bit as magnificent as he always was, but Tutt was barely playing. It was quite sad to see, given that we could also see the footage of Tutt in his younger days, when he was one of the most lively and exciting drummers around. I know he’s had some health problems over the years, and I hope that he was still there because he wanted to be, rather than because he needed the money. I also hope that I don’t sound too critical of Tutt here. The man’s in his eighties, he was one of the greatest drummers around when he was at his peak, and he is clearly loved by the audiences — there were several shouts of “we love you Ronnie!” I admire him enormously as a musician, and if he’s now at a point where all he can do, or all he wants to do, is sit on stage and feel loved by the audience, then I’m happy he gets to do that.

After this first set of four songs with the TCB band, there was a short interval, and then the show restarted with “C.C. Rider”, and the “Trouble/Guitar Man” medley from the Comeback Special, before perfunctory run-throughs of a bunch of the fifties and very early sixties hits. These were perfunctory not because of anything to do with the orchestra, but simply because in the seventies, Elvis used to toss these songs off as briskly as possible, seeing them as an obligation to get through before getting back to performing the songs he cared more about (indeed, at the end of the version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” used here, he says, jokingly, “now that’s over with we can get back to the show”).

I think having six of these songs in a row is a poor bit of setlist management — they should probably have been spaced more throughout the show, rather than clumping in one place. I also think a couple of them could have been dropped, and replaced with something where the available performance footage would have Elvis putting some effort in — I think most people wouldn’t have been bothered if, say, “All Shook Up” or “Don’t Be Cruel” were dropped from the set and replaced with, say, “Polk Salad Annie” or “Never Been To Spain”. Yes, those songs are less well known than “All Shook Up”, but nobody’s enjoyment is really going to be enhanced by seeing Elvis race through “All Shook Up” in about ninety seconds.

After this run, there was a lull in the show while Priscilla and Jerry Schilling came out again, and showed old silent home movies from the sixties. These were exactly the kind of thing you’d expect — Priscilla blowing out candles at a surprise birthday party Elvis threw for her, Elvis riding a go-cart, some shots of them on holiday visiting the Grand Canyon or seeing a war memorial in Hawaii that Elvis had helped to fund, that sort of thing.

And then, after the footage of “Love Me Tender” from the film, and “What Now My Love”, the TCB Band came back on for the last six songs, which were definitely the highlight of the show — partly because having those three people on stage gave the whole thing a bit more of a kick than it otherwise had, and gave the performances more energy, but also partly because this included several of the songs that Elvis did best in the period used for the show — “Suspicious Minds” itself, which is obviously one of the greatest things he ever recorded; “The Wonder of You”, which went down with the audience nearly as well as “I Just Can’t Help Believing”; and “American Trilogy”, which sums up perfectly the weird balancing act between sincerity and irony I was talking about earlier. “American Trilogy” is something that shouldn’t work in any way whatsoever — politically, aesthetically, musically, it’s just a bizarre piece, and it doubly shouldn’t work when performed outside America.

But purely through the sheer force of Elvis’ personality, hearing the climactic “his truth is marching on”, even with far fewer backing vocalists than the song really needed, moved me to tears, and the same went for the final song, “If I Can Dream”, which despite the reverence many Elvis fans have for the song is to my mind a perfect example *as a song* of form over content — it’s a song that gestures at being deep and meaningful while being actually almost completely meaningless in its actual text. But that doesn’t matter, because Elvis’ impassioned performance *gives* it meaning.

Fundamentally, this was not a show that was aimed at me, and not at anyone who has the analytical attitude to art that I normally take. Full enjoyment of this requires that one turn off one’s analytical faculties and just experience the show. And so for that reason my review, while being honest about my own experience of the show, inevitably reads as far more critical than I would ideally like. But in the end, I *did* enjoy the show, and I *am* glad I went to it, if only so I got to see James Burton and Glen Hardin playing live. I can’t say it’s something I’ll ever do again, but it’s something I’m glad I did once.

Setlist:

Overture

Burning Love

Welcome To My World

Steamroller Blues

Fever

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

I Just Can’t Help Believing

Just Pretend

In The Ghetto

Jailhouse Rock

How Great Thou Art

Blue Suede Shoes *

You Gave Me A Mountain *

You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling *

Bridge Over Troubled Water *

Intermission

C.C. Rider

Trouble/Guitar Man

That’s All Right Mama

Hound Dog

Don’t Be Cruel

Heartbreak Hotel

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

All Shook Up

Love Me Tender

What Now My Love?

Suspicious Minds*

My Way *

Big Hunk of Love *

The Wonder of You *

American Trilogy *

If I Can Dream *

(* With the TCB Band)

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