There’s a live version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” from 1969 that captures Elvis Presley in a comical meltdown of uncontrollable laughter. It’s a favorite track for oldies-radio DJs to play during Sunday morning “Breakfast with the King” hours, but it’s rarely been heard in the context of the full concert from which it derives. That August 26th “midnight show” is one of 11 complete shows that make up the new Elvis Live 1969 box set, an 11-disc chronicle that documents Presley’s return to the concert stage after an eight-year hiatus of making largely forgettable Hollywood movies.
Live 1969 compiles the dinner and midnight engagements Presley performed from August 21st through 26th at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, but this isn’t the “Vegas Elvis” in a white jumpsuit that’s become a pop-culture caricature and cautionary tale of overindulgence. Here, he’s mainly performing in black two-piece suits that evoke the leather-clad badass from his TV comeback special a year earlier, and arriving onstage not to the fanfare of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” but to a rock & roll vamp by his band. At only 34, Presley is lean and at the top of his vocal game, if overly corny when he banters with the audience. He tells more than a few jokes about being mistaken for a squirrel, riffs on the Gatorade he has to drink to combat the dry Vegas air, and opens each show with a self-deprecating disclaimer: “Before the evening is over I’ll be making a total and complete fool of myself.”
With bad jokes about his time in the Army perhaps, but not in the thrilling and mostly rare performances. “Suspicious Minds,” then just a week or so into its life as a single, is majestic, with Elvis possessed by the pounding rhythm of drummer Ronnie Tutt. The “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” mash-up is equally combustible, summoning the same dangerous energy that Presley first let loose in the Fifties as a hip-shaking parental nightmare. And “In the Ghetto,” the entertainer’s earnest 1968 attempt at social commentary, is more urgent than schmaltzy.
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But it’s Presley’s covers of then contemporary songs that are most fascinating. He imbues the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” with Southern soul, and transforms Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” into an unrelenting rock rave-up. For Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” he all but owns the lyric’s heartbreak. Shannon is in the audience for one performance, and Presley gives him props from the stage. (Listen closely to hear him directing imposing Memphis Mafia member Lamar Fike to find Shannon.)
The gig is the same one during which Elvis comes to pieces in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” supposedly tickled by Sweet Inspirations singer Cissy Houston’s ability to keep on singing, unfazed, while Presley goes further and further off the rails. Still frazzled, he screws up “Rubberneckin'” immediately afterward and asks the band to restart the tune a full 45 seconds in.
With Presley reciting the same stage patter nearly word-for-word in each of the 11 concerts, it’s these gaffes and unexpected moments that keep Elvis Live 1969 from becoming just an overly repetitive entry for Presley completists. Instead, the box set serves as a snapshot of a world-class entertainer successfully but gingerly rediscovering the magic that made him so in the first place.