FTD CD review
'Unchained Melody' is FTD's 60th CD release!
Until now no complete 1977 concert has been deemed worthy of official release although many have escaped on Bootleg - and some of those from audience recordings.
But here at last we get a "complete" concert and even better a totally unknown & unreleased performance from Elvis’ first concert in Charlotte, February 20 1977.
Knowing that Elvis wasn’t at his best in 1977 there is a a definite bonus in having a selection of 8 extra tracks that include Elvis' last ever performance of 'Reconsider Baby' and his only ever live version of the Gospel ‘Where No One Stands Alone.’
In 1977 Elvis was running on low. His set list had become fairly stagnant and his concerts were often perfunctory at best. After the excitement & newfound energy of the December 1976 concerts, early 1977 saw Elvis going downhill fast and putting on the weight that he had recently lost. In January Elvis showed little interest in finishing songs for his up-coming album at Nashville’s Creative Studios. Perhaps it was his worry about the up-coming tell-all book being written by his former bodyguards or maybe the novelty of his new relationship with Ginger Alden had worn off.
Desperate for new songs Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ producer, went on tour (from March to May) to try and record new live material instead. These recordings eventually provided three filler songs for the ‘Moody Blue’ LP as well as being used for the FTD 1977 compilation ‘Spring Tours’.
Elvis’ first tour of 1977 was 10 dates starting in Hollywood, Florida on February 12th and ending in Charlotte, N.C on February 21st. Unfortunately if Elvis had put on weight and was running on low it would be pretty well downhill from here on in. During the following end of March tour, despite having relaxed on his final Hawaiian holiday, Elvis would be even worse cancelling 4 out of the twelve shows booked. From then on Elvis would only occasionally rouse himself to perform admirable concerts like Johnson City Feb 19th, Ann Arbor April 24th or Binghampton May 26th.
When releasing 2002's ‘Spring Tours’ CD FTD had the opportunity to select the best of Felton Jarvis’ live Spring recordings which created an interesting, if somewhat positive, profile of Elvis in concert during those 3 months. In releasing this new CD Ernst has been clever in selecting another thirteen new songs (not such an easy task) that were not featured on the ‘Spring Tours’ compile making it a worthy companion.
In fact until now no complete 1977 concert has been deemed worthy of official release although many have escaped on Bootleg - and some of those from audience recordings. But here, at last, we get a "complete" concert (as much as was recorded by the engineer) and even better a completely unknown performance from Elvis’ first concert in Charlotte, February 20 1977. Knowing that Elvis wasn’t at his best there is a definite bonus in having a selection of 8 extra tracks to make up the CDs running time of 64 minutes.
(Note: The Fort Baxter bootleg ‘Moody Blue And Other Great Performances’ featured the second Charlotte show which although featuring rarities like ‘Reconsider Baby’ was not the "great" concert you would normally expect for the final show of the tour.)
A lot of fans have complained that the cover photo (above) does not show Elvis in a good light. However to me it seems a very honest candid photograph of the time. Elvis looks a little sleepy-eyed but still has happiness in his smile. What people haven’t noticed is that it also shows a glimpse of Elvis’ sideburns as being naturally white close to his skin. This is a CD for the fans, not for the general public. This is the real Elvis, not the RCA flaunted mega-star.
The sleeve also features plenty of photos from the concerts themselves by Keith Alverson, showing Elvis looking overweight in some, happy in others. A fair representation of February 1977 and hell, even the simple design of the deep blue CD impresses.
(Right: Three of the eight 'in concert' cover photos)
For a soundboard recording the sound quality is very good (even if only in mono) and the mix is excellent with Elvis’ voice well-balanced against the band, backing musicians & orchestra.
Unfortunately the engineer didn’t record the first three numbers but then again it did usually take Elvis a few numbers to ‘warm-up’. And to be honest I have no problem in not having another overlong version of ‘I Got A Woman/Amen'.
Starting with ‘Love Me’ Elvis still doesn’t sound fully engaged although it is a typical version for 1977. ‘Fairytale’ which follows is always good to hear live - "the story of my life" - even if it doesn’t have anything like the excitement of the earlier 1975 live versions.
By ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’ Elvis sounds more engaged and manages to ignore the microphone feedback that would often upset him. Elvis takes trouble over his phrasing and when he sings "just tired, tired of being my wife" @ 01.40 it has particular resonance. The crowd is very appreciative too.
The oldies get the regular work-out although 'Jailhouse Rock' gets some extra energy from Tony Brown showing off some "Jerry Lee" piano riffs. ‘Teddy Bear/Don't Be Cruel’ are standard versions as is ‘It's Now Or Never’ which features the regular joking and Sherrill Neilsen's ‘O Sole Mio’ addition.
Before Elvis sings ‘Little Sister’ there is some fun crowd interaction, with Elvis obviously in good spirits, "When they told me this was Elvis territory they weren’t kidding" and jokingly boxing to the crowd, "She just rung my bell! And what round is it?"
‘Little Sister’, always a welcome addition, gets a fine performance even if you know it is driven by the funk of the band rather than Elvis. Although fairly rough (Elvis throws away the ending) it is taken at a better tempo and a little faster than he would play it later in the year on the Spring Tours.
Elvis then jokes that, "You people are wild" before grabbing the ‘My Way’ lyric sheet off Charlie Hodge and taking a swig of iced water. This causes Elvis to cough and to joke to the audience that it’s, "Very difficult to sing with ice in throat."
Getting the concert back on track Elvis performs a rather gentle and excellent version of ‘My Way.’ As always in 1977 this song means so much more to us now. Listening to Elvis singing @ 02.15 how "I faced it all and I stood tall" breaks your heart knowing what would happen six months later. Elvis sings it beautifully putting his soul into every word.
After this concert triumph Elvis then blows it all by trying his first live attempt at his new single ‘Moody Blue’! Elvis talks with the band while James Burton plays the melody but in the end he gives up in frustration, "To hell with Moody Blue!" We do however gets Elvis’ only complete live version later on in the CD - and more power to FTD for not editing the CD and presenting the "real show" warts and all.
Although in a spot of trouble Elvis then manages to pull it off by continuing with another highlight of a powerful ‘How Great Thou Art’ which gets a big response from the crowd.
At this point Elvis would need a rest and would take a break with the band introductions. These are overlong and sensibly not on this CD.
So from one powerful number we go straight into another with Elvis putting his all into a rousing ‘Hurt’. If there is any track that demonstrates that Elvis was "up for it" that night it is this extraordinary performance. Elvis adds a very different extended ending to the song sliding down the scale and then back up again. A great version that also gets a powerful reprise.
Elvis of course throws in the obligatory ‘Hound Dog’ before some more interaction with the crowd when someone in the crowd shows a photo of him aged two with his mother and father. It’s a cute moment with Elvis laughing and mentioning that, "I was a mere child and had visions of singing in a Gospel Quartet." In a lovely offbeat moment Elvis then sings one line of his 1957 recording ‘My Wish Came True’. What a shame that Glen D Hardin wasn’t present that night as he could well have started playing the melody and got a little more out of Elvis.
Elvis then announces that, "I’d to sit at the piano because we are recording this live" before performing his fourth live 1977 version of ‘Unchained Melody’. After a false start Elvis comments, "Hey. It sounds awfully dry fellows. Is it me? Or it’s like I’ve got nineteen frogs in my throat!" But it’s a fine and passionate version and obviously an audience highlight, even if Elvis doesn’t quite get it right at the end. Interestingly Elvis would next sing this song at Ann Arbor which would become the officially released LP version, albeit with overdubs.
A quick ‘Can't Help Falling In Love’ along with a Monty Python-ish "Like a river flows" and Elvis is heading on home.
After the Charlotte performance we get the bonus of eight interesting tracks compiled from the same February tour.
First is Elvis’ only complete performance of ‘Moody Blue’ from the following night, also in Charlotte. Elvis honestly explains, "I tried it last night but didn’t make it. If we goof it up please forgive us." While the general public would not be impressed by this it is Elvis’ only live version. He stumbles and laughs at points but it is great to have ‘Moody Blue’ live finally released officially for fans.
The song nicely segues into a rare 1977 ‘Blueberry Hill’ (from St Petersburg Feb 14) with Elvis showing pianist Tony Brown how to play it, "You’re a fantastic piano player, but you are warped son. I’m going to show you how to do it!" It’s another fine bonus song with rolling "Fats Domino" piano and a great laid-back feel. Just a shame that Elvis stopped after two verses.
A very enjoyable ‘Love Letters’ follows perfect for Valentine’s day in St Petersburg. Very cool and laid back, Elvis sets a very fine mood for the night.
‘Where No One Stands Alone’ Elvis’ only live performance ever has to be a highlight of this CD. Elvis announces it saying, "I’d like to do a song that I have done before on stage in my life. We have never rehearsed it . .I have to play the piano ‘cos I know the chord changes. This will be.. (me) the Stamps and Sherrill Neilsen." It is an absolutely fabulous performance which I am surprised has never been released previously. From Montgomery Alabama Feb 16th did the crowd even realise the uniqueness of this magical moment? Two minutes of Gospel beauty and even without a rehearsal Elvis and The Stamps pull off a sensational version. Unfortunately the song features some annoying digital crackle that isn’t present on the bootleg version. Although Ernst states that this is on their original tape, there is no doubt that someone like Kevan Budd would have not let this get through his quality control.
‘Release Me’ is a rarity that Elvis brings back from his repertoire. Elvis never sang this song at all in 1976 and had only performed it a handful of times since 1973 when he dropped it from his set-list after the summer Vegas season. Obviously new for the recent band members Elvis even sings the intro for pianist Tony Brown to play (which he doesn’t!). Dedicated to "'chicken neck" this of course has nothing like the power of Elvis’ earlier versions. But performed with a slower "country" feel it is still good to hear as Elvis obviously enjoys singing it. Of the four times Elvis performed ‘Release Me’ in 1977 he did bring it back for his very final concert in June 26th 1977. (Conspiracy theorists make of that what you will!)
Also from Caroline Feb 18th Elvis is inspired to perform ‘Trying To Get To You’ after being told by a member in the audience that he had played there 20 years before! Elvis throws in some Pink Panther jokes, "Here’s looking at you kid", before singing a rather fine version for 1977. At a faster tempo than during the ‘Spring Tours’ this is a great bonus.
The highlight of ‘Reconsider Baby’ is next. Mentioning that, "This is a blues song that I did about a month and a half ago" (New Year’s Eve 1976) this is a classic work-out. Elvis is having a great time, listen out for his delicious growl @ 01:00. James Burton adds some fine blues guitar while Elvis thrashes at his acoustic. There is no doubt about Elvis’ feeling for the song and this certainly helps demonstrate that in 1977 Elvis still had the feeling within him if inspired. A great release and even better in fine audio that you can crank up loud.
What a shame that Elvis only performed this song live less than 10 times in his whole career and how lucky we are that this very last on-stage version was recorded in such quality.
The last song is a rather strange version of ‘Why Me Lord’ which starts in a higher key than it would normally be performed in. Sung only a handful of times since Elvis dropped it from his set-list in 1975, this would be Elvis’ first performance in 1977. It is an interesting addition because you can imagine Elvis scratching his head and wondering why it doesn't sound right. You can hear Elvis start singing but then stop because he is in the wrong key. Elvis then stops the song saying to arranger Ronnie Tutt, "It’s the wrong key fellows. Ronnie?" Elvis is obviously happy when they start in the right key as he then joins in to perform a very sweet, if short, version.
The CD ends with Elvis saying, "Anytime you want us back up here just let us know and we’ll come back." Sadly he never would.
Verdict: While the Charlotte concert was not one of Elvis’ best (not even for 1977) the additional bonus tracks more than make up for it. FTD continue to provide exciting material for Elvis collectors and with tracks like ’Reconsider Baby’ and ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ there are some very fine performances here that needed to be officially released. Of course this is not the excitement of Elvis’ live shows of the early 1970’s but nor is it the slurred sad unsteadiness of his 1976 concerts. This CD has been brutally dismissed by some fans but they are wrong because if you are interested in Elvis’ legacy and what happened in 1977 then this CD is a very fine companion to the ‘Spring Tours’ CD. After all isn’t this what a collector’s label is all about?
Review by Piers Beagley
-Copyright EIN, April 2007
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