Elvis at his live best. The music is indispensable, but the endless stream of repackaged product is discouraging.
I have very mixed feelings about this release. On the one hand, this music is indispensable for Elvis fans. On the other, this piece of product is about as shameless as they come, revealing nothing we didn't already know, adding little to numerous prior releases of the same material. Basically, it's par for the course as far as Elvis Presley releases go.
Is there another major figure in rock and roll whose catalogue has been treated with such haphazardness as Elvis Presley's? During his lifetime, his albums alternated between the well-executed and the slapdash, and that trend has continued unabated in the decades since his death. This system of issuing product, thinking about it later, and rethinking it on the occasion of an anniversary has made things more confusing than ever.
The fact that Sony now owns Presley's vast and valuable RCA catalogue, due to the miracles of corporate mergers and takeovers, is strange enough on its face, but this also means a whole new rash of reissues and reconfigurations is slowly trickling out. On the bright side, we've gotten the four-disc Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight, the most imaginative and thorough collection of its kind. But we've also been treated to the likes of Christmas Duets, which surely must be the last way anyone could think to wring more money out of Elvis' holiday output. Somewhere in between was the Legacy Edition of From Elvis in Memphis, which received almost unanimously glowing reviews even though it was an unimaginatively straightforward repackaging of the titular album with its inferior companion Back in Memphis, plus the singles recorded during those sessions. It ignored the alternate takes from RCA's 1999 anthology Suspicious Minds, added nothing new, and didn't give anyone who owned the earlier collection a reason to replace it. At the same time, it's not like it sullied the reputation of the Memphis sessions, or, God forbid, Elvis himself. It was a fine, if ultimately unnecessary, reissue.
Similarly, what is billed as a Legacy Edition of 1970's On Stage is in reality an occasion to package that record together with another live album, In Person, and augment both with an assortment of contemporaneous material previously scattered on half a dozen other releases. On Stage had previously been given an expanded treatment in 1999, with six bonus tracks, some of which were songs that appeared in different versions on In Person, which had been released on CD much earlier. At around the time of the expanded edition of On Stage, RCA had taken to releasing the more noteworthy Elvis albums with extra tracks taken from the bevy of budget albums and non-album singles churned out during his career. Simultaneously, virtually all of those lesser albums remained available on CD. To further complicate the discography, RCA also released compilations of certain crucial stages of Elvis's career, like Sunrise, Elvis 56, Tomorrow Is a Long Time, and Burning Love, an interesting approach that attempted to put into context recordings that came out piecemeal and in odd combinations over the years. There's certainly plenty out there to choose from, and the transfer of the catalogue to Sony will undoubtedly do little to tidy up the mess that is the Elvis Presley discography.
All of this is to say that the Legacy Edition of On Stage, although it's not the first, fifth, or tenth Elvis album you should own if you're just now discovering this guy, is probably the best way to acquire the music within. Covering his first two residencies in Las Vegas, this is quite simply Elvis at the peak of his live powers. In Person, recorded in 1969, is a blast through rock-and-roll past (Elvis's and others') and emphasizes the rougher, bluesier elements of his repertoire. On Stage, from 1970, demonstrates his facility with the contemporary rock and pop songbook, paying particular attention to big ballads. Taken together, the albums both accurately depict what he was doing during his Vegas triumph and point the way towards the remainder of his career.
There's no reason to believe that this'll be the last word on Elvis's first year in Vegas. The wonderful documentary That's the Way It Is, the album of the same name, the three-disc deluxe version of that album, On Stage, In Person, tracks that first appeared on the boxed set Walk a Mile in My Shoes, more than half of the Live in Las Vegas box, and now this Legacy Edition have all been culled from those shows, and with good reason: this was the logical culmination of the successes of the '68 Comeback Special, From Elvis in Memphis, and singles like "Suspicious Minds", "In the Ghetto", and "Kentucky Rain", but it's also strong music in its own right. The showmanship, the weird and endearing mixture of gargantuan over-the-top-ness and humility, comes through in every moment of this music, particularly on In Person, which includes snippets of monologue that capture Presley's humor as well as his nervous energy – these were his first live shows in a decade, and despite his recent commercial and artistic successes, he wasn't guaranteed a triumphant return to the stage.
Any doubts regarding Elvis's onstage vitality, though, would be dispelled by blazing versions of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, which immediately entered the Presley canon; show-stopping balladry like “The Wonder of You”; and renditions of his oldies, such as “Hound Dog”, “Mystery Train” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, which hadn't yet become opportunities for Elvis to flip the auto-pilot switch. Honestly, the only dull moment on this entire release is the bonus rehearsal of “The Wonder of You”. The other extra tracks, especially the ones on In Person, are as good as the original albums.
So this Legacy Edition is good, but was it necessary? Not really. This music can be had in other configurations, and even if this is the most thorough version of these albums that we're likely to see, a more complete live album -- whole shows, in fact -- can be found on the expanded edition of That's the Way It Is and the Live in Las Vegas box set. These feature many of the same songs and have the added perk of momentum -- Elvis' shows were nothing if not meticulously crafted for maximum audience reaction. Both On Stage and In Person attempt to achieve a similar effect, but wind up feeling like the incomplete documents that they are. In Person comes closest to succeeding, but climaxing with “Suspicious Minds” and “Can't Help Falling Love” after 25 minutes just doesn't pack the punch that the same trick does after an hour.
The catch is that the three-disc That's the Way It Is is now out of print, as is the Live in Las Vegas box set. So we're left with On Stage in its Legacy Edition if we want more than a small dose of Elvis at his live best. In that sense, since it's the only readily available way to get this music now, at this very instant, the Legacy Edition is essential. But if you think Sony won't put out something more comprehensive in the next few years, I suggest you think again.