'HIGH VOLTAGE! - Birmingham '76'
Audionics/2001 - CD review
There can be no doubt that Elvis' 29th December concert in Birmingham, Alabama in 1976 was one of his best concerts in a long while, on a par with his legendary New Year's Eve concert of 2 days later.
Although collectors loved the original ‘Burning In Birmingham’ bootleg it contained a lot of background audio hiss and the sound was pretty flat, especially when compared with Elvis’ dynamic performance on the night.
This new release of the same dynamic concert is not only in stereo but is now presented with a stylish 16-page booklet full of classic photographs from the concert itself.
In this review EIN's Piers Beagley visits an old friend...
Announced on the cover as 'Classic Concerts Volume 1' this "High Voltage (Birmingham ‘76 revisited)" CD is the first combined release between the classy production teams of Audionics and 2001.
There can be no doubt that Elvis' concert in Birmingham, Alabama on the 29th December 1976 was one of his best concerts in a long while, only to be surpassed by his New Year's Eve concert of 2 days later.
Originally released back in 1998 as 'Burning In Birmingham' the CD is now presented with a stylish 16-page booklet full of classic photographs from the concert itself, reviews and information. But even better, the CD is now in stereo which adds a real excitement to the performance. Gone is the hiss of the previous version, there is a new rich depth to the sound and even some of the distortion on Elvis’ vocal track has been fixed. While this means you can really crank up the Hi-Fi, it is perhaps the ballads that benefit most from greater dynamics of the new mix.
Interestingly it is the controversial cover photo (above) that has stirred a lot of debate. While some fans see it as very unflattering I can understand why it was chosen. Unlike the majority of Elvis' very lackadaisical concerts from 1976 he was really up for it in Birmingham that night and ready to rock, attacking songs with a renewed energy. This was, of course, because Elvis' new girlfriend Ginger Alden - only 20 years old - was on tour with him. And we all know that Elvis performed at his best when faced with a real challenge.
Listening to the concert there is a real energy to Elvis’ voice, unlike the dreadful slurriness of previously in the year. And while he is obviously buzzing with enthusiasm and trying to impress his girlfriend (he often calls out to Ginger during the show) he is also not excessively "speedy" as witnessed via his distracted chatter on some other concerts.
In someways hearing this Birmingham concert in stereo is like visiting an old friend - but finding them in better form and sounding even better than ever.
(Right:Inside booklet image. Elvis in his 'Inca Gold Leaf' suit)
The mix is excellent and while the clavinet (electric piano) can be a little harsh at points, the rest of the band - James Burton's great guitar work, the rumbling Jerry Scheff bass - even the orchestra, are all fabulously clear in the mix. If FTD could do the same to other ‘Classic Concerts’ (August 19th 1974 - why not?) then we would be as enthusiastic about those releases too.
The CD starts with the exhilarating build up of the 2001 introduction and the added excitement created by this stereo mix is immediately obvious as you get the feel of the auditorium and the 18,000 adoring fans who are waiting just to see our man.
From the punchy start of 'See See Rider' Elvis is obviously in fine form and great spirits. What an amazing turn-around from the low-key shows of Cow Palace just one month previously, or even the Las Vegas season only two weeks before. You can hear it in the way Elvis holds the notes and plays with the lyrics, "I said, yeah, see, see, see, see, see Rider.." throws in some "whoas" and pushes along the band. So often in 1976 it sadly seemed the opposite as if the band were dragging Elvis along, but not here!
Even the "old regulars" that we have heard too many times and in better versions are fun. 'I Got a Woman/Amen' has a renewed spark to it and it is nice to hear Elvis enjoying himself making music on stage once again. Listen to "She's there to love me, both day and night, she knows, she knows, she knows, she knows .." @02.08. The funk routine with Elvis laughing "That's enough my belt is falling off" is genuine fun and, while most people are probably over J.D's routine vocal bass-slide endings, here the audio quality can really move your bass speaker. It certainly demonstrates the audio improvement with this release.
After his introduction "My name is Glen Campbell" Elvis mentions that he has never played in Birmingham before noting, "God this is a big place". He was right since it was the largest audience on the tour.
Even the often thrown-away 'Love Me' gets a serious treatment here and sincere ending, while a fine 'Fairytale' which follows has Elvis urging the band along "one more time" to an extra chorus.
'You Gave Me A Mountain' again has Elvis pushing his voice and throwing in some adlibs, "You gave me a mountain, over there somewhere" - and is followed by a crowd-pleasing extended 'Jailhouse Rock' with Elvis sounding more enthusiastic than usual.
Similarly 'It's Now Or Never' gets a good treatment (there is a tape break during this but it is more complete than on previous releases) but it is the later part of the concert which really proves that Elvis was back on form.
"I'd like to... We're gonna do a lot of different songs, if you don't mind, that you don't recognise" takes us to a very cool 'Trying To Get To You' with Elvis singing his heart out. There are some cute emphasises, "When your lovin' letter told me, told me, told me, told me, yeah" and a fine ending falsetto.
Moving to 'My Way' Elvis once again touches our emotions adlibbing in the song, "You, guys know don't you? - I did it my way". These latter versions of course have more emotional impact - and Elvis himself is involved as he pushes his vocal to a climatic ending with his voice going up a key.
'Polk Salad Annie' takes us once again back to the funk and sounds very different with the prominence of David Briggs "funk axe". Elvis throws in some fine growls, "Yeah Lord" and the resonant bass on this release sounds very fine indeed. Here one can visualise the image on the cover photo with Elvis getting angry within the song. He joins in, singing along with the solos, and there's a real energy to the end as Elvis testifies, "Wind it up!". Play it loud!
From the fifties, to the emotional 'My Way', to 70's swamp-rock of 'Polk Salad Annie' and onto a sublime 'Early Morning Rain' it is a delightful pacing.
Contrasting against the previous funk, 'Early Morning Rain' is beautifully sung and one of the longest versions Elvis performed in concert as he pushes the band to continue saying, "One more verse". It is another example demonstrating what fine form he was on in Birmingham. (New Year's Eve would get the shorter version).
Elvis seems enthused by all the solos this night, joking about James Burton playing 'Johnny B Goode' with his guitar behind his head "Easy for him to do, Hard for me!"
'Love Letters' is the usual tender, if too slow in tempo version while Elvis really rocks joining in on 'Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roll'. In fact at the end Elvis really brings it to a climax causing him to laughingly comment, "What the heck was that note I just hit? I just strained a gut!"
The previous night in Dallas Elvis performed only three more songs at this point before he 'left the building' - but Birmingham would be really special with yet another eight songs to follow as Elvis strays way off the regular set-list!
There is a huge cheer as Elvis asks for the house lights to be turned up for a cool 'Funny How Time Slips Away' which includes some fine 'chicken-pickin' guitar from James Burton and some marvellous deep J.D Sumner vocals.
Again the stereo audio here helps capture the real feeling of the size of the auditorium and crowd that Elvis is playing to.
Elvis introduces 'Hurt' as "one of my latest records" with him treating it as a vocal showstopper and reprising the ending. Again Elvis is working with the band "talk to me James" he says, but suggests, "Wanna' hear that last part again?.. we can do it better". The second ending is even more over-the-top as Elvis exclaims, "Lord have mercy!"
The crowd pleaser 'Hound Dog' follows before the completely spontaneous suggestion to the band of 'For The Good Times'! There is no record of Elvis performing this at all in 1976 - and only a couple of times since 1972! No wonder everyone was caught off guard! "What key did we do it in James?" asks Elvis while he also has to guide the band.
'For The Good Times' begins with a false start - due to some strange on-stage crash - and Elvis has to egg on the band who are obviously not rehearsed into joining in saying, "C'mon, c'mon... I can't hear them". The band is slow to respond but soon the feeling is there which produces a very tender and delightful slow-tempo version. Elvis approves, "Lord, have mercy" - with Charlie Hodge and Sherrill Neilsen also joining in on 3-part harmony. Elvis sings it very sincerely and it is all that more a highlight knowing that this would be the last time Elvis would ever sing the song in concert.
While this was surely sung to Ginger Alden ("hold your warm and tender body so close to mine") the next song 'The First Time Ever I saw Your Face' is also dedicated directly to her, "We'll do this song for you sweetheart".
'The First Time Ever I saw Your Face', possibly only sung once in the previous year, is again the last time Elvis would perform this particular tune in concert. Due to its rarity Elvis again has to help instruct the band and emphasises the sincerity of it being for Ginger saying "Listen" a few times. The highlight at 02.00 is when Elvis asks all the band to "lay out" apart from David Briggs on piano creating a sensationally touching verse of just his quiet vocal. In this stereo version again you can hear how Elvis completely captures this crowd - 18,000 fans all silent - crank up the Hi-Fi and you get the feel. Sadly a couple of fans have to call-out causing Elvis to comment "Shutup!" but this only goes to emphasise the sincerity of his performance. One has to wonder if Ginger even noticed the amazing uniqueness of the night at the time.
While 'Unchained Melody' is familiar to us all nowadays when Elvis announces, "If you don't mind I'd like to play the piano and sing for you" this was only the third time Elvis would perform it live. (I bet the band were wondering what the hell would come next!)
'Unchained Melody' is another highlight, if a little rough, with Elvis calling out chord changes as he plays. Elvis is obviously in far better physical shape than on his later versions, which tended to show his breathlessness, and the final build up where he calls to the band "Lay it on me" takes it to a fine climax, as he coments, "Whoo!"
Sounding pleased with his solo performance Elvis then jumps into a spontaneous 'Mystery Train/Tiger Man' - he would only perform it one more time. A fast and funky version it is a final highlight as Elvis improvises and sings along more than ever.
Comparing it to his laid-back 3 May 1977 version (where Elvis sounds out of breath and doesn't join in) here Elvis still has plenty of energy to spare. Check out his extremely funny "Hey hey Hey, bluh-luh-luh-luh-luh" segue between songs at 01.10 ! A classic live version.
It's a great ending to an inspired show but time is up, "'Til we meet you again - Adios Mother" takes us to the serious finale of 'Can't Help Falling In Love'. Again Elvis finishes the concert without throwing the song away and pushes the final note suggesting earlier to Ginger, "Stay here until the very end".
In December 1976 Elvis rose to his new challenge - 20 year old Ginger Alden - and showed everyone, once again, that he was the consummate inspired showman. These December concerts would be our last major glimpse of that fabulous musical beacon that shone so brightly back in August 1969 in Las Vegas. Sadly the light would soon fade with New Year's Eve being another grand finale, but Birmingham that night was one of the very best.
If you missed this release first time around then this upgraded version should not be missed. And with the added excitement of the stereo mix, for those that own the original it is well worth revisiting this old friend.
Now if only FTD could release a stereo Witchita/Atlanta December 1976 concerts CD - what a fine treat that would be.
Explaining the new stereo mix, technically the sleeve states the following:
"The Birmingham, AL, 29.12.1976, 8.30P.M. show was originally released in mono except for track 1, which is previously unreleased. For this reissue, Audionics/2001 team worked directly from the first generation DAT and was able to obtain significant audio improvement over the former release. After a long and painstaking process of repairing and enhancing the original binaural recording, the label's sound engineer mixed the show down to genuine stereo, thus ensuring a much more satisfying listening experience. Originally, the lelft channel consisted of all the vocals and nearly all of the instruments, while the right channel featured the (isolated) keyboards played by Tony Brown and David Briggs. The sound was transferred using 24-hit processing and professional equipment, and carefully enhanced in a renowned studio to achieve the best possible sound for your optimal listening pleasure."
After the concert finishes on the CD, the 2 bonus tracks in original binaural help demonstrate how much effort has been put into creating this new stereo mix.
The New Year's Eve concert of 2 days later was possibly Elvis' "last great concert" - now if ONLY that recording was as good as this!
Verdict: Running the full 80 minutes this upgraded re-release is indeed a classic concert. There is a real energy to Elvis’ performance and along with fascinating song selection and stylish 16-page booklet, the new stereo audio mix adds a new level of interest and excitement to this old favourite. Elvis performed at his best when faced with a real challenge, and after New Year's Eve 1976 there weren't many mountains left to climb. - If you don't own a copy of this memorable concert make sure you track this one down.
Preview by Piers Beagley
Copyright EIN - April 2008
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Note - EIN does not support bootleggers since they do deprive songwriters & musicians of their well-deserved earnings. There is however no doubt that FTD/BMG need to consider similar 'Classic Concerts' upgrades for future collector's release.