By Jon Waterhouse
Call me a creature of habit, but I have a pre-concert ritual. The day of a show I’ll go on an audio marathon of that particular artist, an intensive career-spanning retrospective to put my mind, body and spirit in the right musical place.
Creating a performer’s ultimate playlist takes time and energy. So as I readied for yesterday’s Elvis 35th Anniversary Concert, I let Elvis Week 2012 do all of the work.
All I had to do was head to the Main Stage pavilion for On Stage with Terry Mike Jeffrey and Andy Childs. It wasn’t just a pre-concert warm up, but a bonafide pre-concert concert.
Gladys and Maybelle, a sister act from Fort Worth, Texas, greeted fans with an acoustic set of Elvisness featuring their silky sibling harmonies.
Childs and Jeffrey each stocked their own acoustic sets with personally treasured tracks. It was audience interaction time during Childs’s performance of “Lover Doll” from “King Creole.” My foot began tapping involuntarily to Jeffery’s snappy reading of “Slowly But Surely.”
The afternoon’s headliner proved to be the awesome Jose Feliciano, a guitar maestro and nine-time Grammy winner. I was pumped to see his fancy fretwork. Along with Elvis’s Christmas cuts, Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad” stays in heavy rotation in the Waterhouse house during Santa season.
Since the current high holiday is Elvis Week, Feliciano used his acoustic guitar to play mostly Elvis tunes. His trademark virtuosity was evident throughout a smoking version of “Mystery Train.” He also sampled songs from his latest disc, “The King by Jose Feliciano,” which features interpretations of his favorite Elvis material.
I can definitely say from personal experience that Feliciano is certainly one of us. I overheard him rattling off Elvis trivia in the EPE offices.
“Did you know that Elvis liked his steak burnt?” I heard him say.
Feliciano’s Elvis anecdotes continued, and he seemed as excited to be at Graceland as I was. Yeah, the guy may be best known for his version of “Light My Fire.” But now I know it’s the king who ignites a real passion in Feliciano.
Just a couple of hours later, and I was off to the FedEx Forum for the VIP Pre-concert Reception. The exclusive bash took place in the basketball practice facility, but it was Team Elvis that was in the house.
The minute I darkened its door, I heard some familiar harmonies. Gladys and Maybelle were at it again, this time on the reception stage.
I milled about the room, noshed on egg rolls and fried dumplings, and tried chatting with my new pal from Tokyo, fellow journalist Masahito Sugamata. A translator would’ve been handy, but we both speak the international of language of Elvis.
Looking up I noticed the Elvis host who knows Elvis most, Tom Brown, on the reception stage. Brown called out Jerry Schilling, and the pair chatted it up for a bit before Schilling took questions from the crowd.
Priscilla Presley was next in line and offered her own Q&A. The conversation included Presley talking about the possibility of reprising her classic “Dallas” role on the new continuation of the TV series. Coincidentally, TNT’s “Dallas” happens to be a pet project of Brown’s.
Looking like a ’60s version of her mother, a stunning Lisa Marie Presley joined her mom and Brown on stage. Fans threw out questions including those about her upcoming tour. UK fans can rest easy. She’ll be jamming in England soon.
After the interviews I talked Elvis shop with several other fans. Jorge Rodriguez of Mission, Texas was keeping his fingers crossed that the evening’s show would include a little “Polk Salad Annie.” Another Texan, Janice Conway of Dallas, gushed over the Presley ladies, and said they looked “fantastic.” Ash Devlin of Dublin, Ireland told me she was grateful to have witnessed the private VIP Q&A with Priscilla and Lisa Marie.
Leaving the reception hall, I made my way to my seat in the arena. Moments after I plopped down I realized I was sitting next to the wife of TCB piano man, Glen Hardin. We talked about the Elvis phenom, and she said her husband once said to her, “35 years later and I’m still working for him.”
That time clock started soon thereafter. Having seen the 30th anniversary show, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just like the previous performance, Elvis handled the lead vocal duties courtesy of audio and video magic. But this time things proved to be much more theatrical out of the gate.
Video projections and actual set pieces helped take the audience from the Presley’s humble home to Sun Records. Then all attention was given to drummer DJ Fontana, guitarist Brad Birkedahl and stand-up bassist Joe Fick. The trio tore through several early rockers like it was 1956.
The rest of the first half of the show jumped from one section of Elvis’s career to the next. Priscilla Presley appeared and introduced an Elvis movie music segment featuring the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
The portion dedicated to “The ’68 Comeback Special” included a replica of the sit-down jam session. A massive image of Elvis sang along as Terry Mike Jeffrey, Andy Childs, James Burton, DJ Fontana and Paul Leim sat in chairs and played tunes such as “One Night With You.” Fontana kept time by beating on a guitar case.
An Elvis concert wouldn’t be right without a segment dedicated to gospel. The Sweet Inspirations, The Imperials, The Stamps and Sound Fuzion, a vocal group from the University of Memphis, each showed their spiritual song savvy. The groups then joined forces for a powerful burst of “How Great Thou Art.”
The show’s second half kicked off with a home movie segment that featured childhood footage of Lisa Marie Presley with her parents, and clips of her with her own children. Lisa Marie then stepped into the spotlight and told the audience there was no other place she’d rather be at that moment than with them.
“Thank you for everything you do,” she said.
The show then took us on a virtual trip to Las Vegas. The curtain pulled back to reveal a full band and orchestra joining the King on songs from the concert film “Elvis: That’s the Way it Is.” Elvis band veterans James Burton, Glen Hardin, Joe Guercio, The Sweet Inspirations and The Imperials were all part of the package.
I’m still amazed at how well the band synched up with both Elvis’s vocal track and the video footage. At times you really forgot Elvis wasn’t there as he cued the drums and guitar with head nods and finger points. As I watched the crowd react to “Suspicious Minds” with a standing ovation, I knew I wasn’t the only one who bought the illusion.
After Vegas we were beamed to Hawaii circa 1973. The time travel was so convincing, I had a sudden craving for poi. “Aloha From Hawaii” came to life with a rumbling version of “C.C. Rider.” “Burnin’ Love” and the down-and-dirty “Steamroller Blues” had me hooked like a mahi-mahi. “American Trilogy” was still as moving as it was more than 39 years ago. Despite my vocal challenges, the “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sing-a-long saw me joining the masses. And Elvis even introduced some of the band members himself.
The show’s finale proved to be a strong tug on my heartstrings. All of the performers gathered on stage as the band joined Elvis on “If I Can Dream.”
We can all dream of what it would be like to have the King back for one more show. Thankfully, the powers-that-be behind the Elvis 35th Anniversary Concert made that dream a reality. I left the arena with my mind, body and spirit in the right musical place.