Elvis Live 1969: Bearing Witness To The King's Triumphant Reinvention 

New Box Set Offers Totally Immersive Experience of a Lean, Mean Elvis in Vegas

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"Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the freaky International Hotel. With its little weirdo dolls on the walls, its little funky angels on the ceiling. You ain't seen nothing til you seen a funky angel, boy, I tell ya. This is my first live appearance in nine years. I've appeared dead...  What's that, a bean or what? A bead? A bug? A beetle? An ol' woolly booger! What is that?"

For Elvis Presley, the belted hits and rambling banter were all in a day's work. He was in residence for four weeks at the aforementioned hotel, newly opened, with dinner and midnight shows every night, backed by a crack five-piece band led by guitar ace James Burton, a show orchestra, and background vocals by either the Sweet Inspirations or the Imperials.

And yet, as he mentions, it was new to him all over again. After his moribund years starring in lackluster Hollywood movies, he'd taken back to the stage with leather-clad vengeance in the famed televised comeback of December, 1968. Now, stoked by that momentum, he was upping the ante with this long stretch of live shows.

To date, it's been the televised special that garnered the most ink, with many critics and historians weighing in on its significance. But these live shows from the summer of 1969, his first in almost a decade, were, as Geoff Edgers has written in The Washington Post, "when Elvis made his true comeback."

And now the evidence for that is laid out more clearly than ever before. While many of the performances were released piecemeal on live albums throughout the 1970s, a new completist CD set on RCA/Legacy puts you right there in the smoke-filled theater, night after night. Elvis Live 1969 presents eleven complete shows across as many discs, largely unedited.
The first thing that hits you is the music, of course, including the rich new mix by Memphis' own Matt Ross-Spang. The clarity and richness of tone is a worthy tribute to the TCB Band, as fine a group of players as Elvis ever gathered around him. With this box set's documentation picking up after they'd already been playing for three weeks, the combo is white hot. And if the Vegas-flavored show orchestra is not to your taste, never fear: Most of the rockers present the stripped-down rock band thundering through the hits at a breakneck pace, firing on all cylinders. Often, only the intro and outro of each song is punctuated by horns, or, on a few grandiose ballads, a string section.

Throughout, the background choral groups are used with restraint, and bring a bit of Memphis soul to the proceedings. And make no mistake, Memphis is a recurring theme throughout, as Elvis generously (?) offers long digressions between each number.

"I was thinking about the cat who owns this place, a man named Kerkorian," the singer reflects. "He's gotta be a weirdo, too. He thinks I'm a weirdo. I need to get him and Howard Hughes in a crap game, you know? Hughes saying, 'I got Nevada! I got Nevada!' The other guy saying, 'I got New York!' And me in the middle saying, 'I got Memphis! Memphis!'"

While Elvis was no genius of stand up, and some of the banter becomes a bit cringe-inducing as he flounders in the dead silence between songs, his stream of consciousness rambles offer a glimpse into his life, with a truly surreal touch that offers the recurring image of a "woolly booger," whatever that is.

"I'd like to do a medley of some of my biggest records for ya. They were actually no bigger than any of the others. They were all about the same size. But it sounds impressive, you know... Oh, the smoke! The mind's going, the body, everything. Just deteriorating...I'm even losing the hair on my chest, it's terrible...When I first started out, I had three pieces. Three instruments. [laughter] You know, they're gonna come get me, they're gonna carry me away. I can feel it coming. They got woolly boogers all over the place goin' 'Watch him! Watch him!'"

"What'd I do with that little bean I had a while ago? You got it? Better watch it! It's a woolly booger, I'll tell ya!"

Ultimately, such loony language seems of a piece with the fiery focus of the band. Burton's guitar work is full of his trademark razor-sharp quick-picking, always with a fine skein of distortion. And the rest of the band follows suit, ranging from groovy, R&B-informed stomps to ballads of delicate beauty. Perhaps the King, with all his rambling and freestyle reminiscing, was crazy like a fox, inspiring his players to keep it edgy. Woolly boogers, indeed.

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