As Recorded at Madison Square Garden
Released: July 1972
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 34
Certified Platinum: 5/20/88
This is a damn fine record, friend, and you're going to like it whether you like it or not. There's Wagnerian bombast, plenty of your favorite songs, some jukebox music and some Las Vegas lounge music. There's even some old fashioned rock 'n' roll. And most of all there's lots of Elvis, doing what he does best, strutting his stuff before adoring fans. There's even historical interest; this was Elvis' first New York stage appearance, and you can bet plenty of folks had been waiting since 1956 for a little of that Elvis magic. Well, they got it, and you can hear them getting it right here, the whole thing, from the opening whisper of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" to the MC announcing that "Elvis has left the building. Thank you and good night."
When Elvis became a rock 'n' roll singer he was picking up on a good thing, namely black blues. White Southerners had been recording black blues since the Twenties, but Elvis was the first one to become a star. He had the looks, the dynamism, the appeal of violent, impulsively sexual white trash. He could sing and he had that rhythmic drive. Even when he was starring in some of the worst exploitation movies ever made you knew he was just one step away from stepping out of his jive role and rocking the joint. Since he's started performing in public again he's discovered that his fans range in age from pre-teen to menopausal, and he's done his best to satisfy them all. Madison Square Garden, though, is his rockingest record in a long time, so Elvis fans who like it when he gets down are really going to dig it.
Every great rock and roll singer needs a great rock and roll band, and Elvis has got one. James Burton, the guitarist, can pick Sun era rockabilly, country twang, laid-back bluesy fills and sharp, ringing single string leads. Bassist Jerry Schiff and drummer Ronny Tutt are super tight; when they nail down the beat, it stays nailed down. Pianist Glen Hardman knows when to honk and when to tonk. The backup singers are the Sweet Inspirations and J.D. Summer and the Stamps, the one a black gospel group, the other white gospel. Church music of the sanctified, shouting kind has never been far removed from blues and rock & roll, so these two groups are perfect complements to Elvis' gospel-tinged voice. Kathy Westmoreland of the Inspirations sings graceful obbligatos way up high, and Mr. J.D. Sumner is the most authorative bass singer you could imagine, especially when he ends a song with one of his long, perfectly timed slides down from the dominant to the tonic. Of course there's also a flaccid orchestra sawing away in the background, but it's used like the orchestras on some of the classic Phil Spector records, to reverberate around the core of band and singers and occasionally come out with a sweet lead line.
The record keeps on mixing up old favorites like "Teddy Bear" and "Don't Be Cruel" with more recent things like "Suspicious Minds." The latter has a thrashing, Cecil B. DeMille finale highlighted by Tutt's thundering drums. "I Can't Stop Loving You" is a surprise. Here it's a medium rocker with weeping guitar, more kicks from Tutt, and a powerful vocal that manages to find things to do with the song that even Hank Williams and Ray Charles didn't get to. "Hound Dog" includes some humor, Elvis starts it several times and lets it drop. "Now you don't know what I'm going to do yet," he tells the audience. When the tune gets started, it's a funky semi-boogaloo with wah-wah guitar and a deftly rhythmic vocal from Elvis that tenses the releases like a tightly coiled spring. Then the whole band falls right into the rocking tempo of the original, without missing a lick.
Even Mickey Newbury's pretentious "American Trilogy" -- which is really just "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "All My Trials" strung together -- is fun, with Elvis laying some funky inflections on the grandiose orchestral and choral parts. "Can't Help Falling in Love," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and "The Impossible Dream" are pretty Lake Tahoe, but still, you've got to admire Elvis' singing. He brings a touch of home-style raunch to even these saccharine evergreens.
So all things considered, just like I said before, this is a damn fine record. Elvis may not generate the polymorphously perverse hysteria the Rolling Stones arouse, he may not move around and jump into the air and wiggle his hips like he used to, but he's come through superstardom without forgetting what it means to rock, that's the important thing. Now I personally feel that he could save a lot of money and tighten up his act by firing his orchestra and making do with a couple of timpanists and the Memphis Horns, and if he just did stuff like "Polk Salad Annie" and "That's All Right" and forgot about Las Vegas for awhile, I'd like that too. But there's lots of people rocking and rolling to Elvis who wouldn't be caught dead at a Faces or a Stones concert, people who don't know the difference between Sun Records and Sun Ra but who will be more than happy to tell you what they like. And what they like is remembering sock hops and looking forward to that big Vegas vacation. So everybody gets enough of what they want to get what they need.
- Bob Palmer, Rolling Stone, 8/31/72.
Elvis at the Garden was supposed to be a big deal because he'd never performed in New York before, but unless you were one of the bleached-out housewives who shrieked and shivered every time he shook his ass or one of the bummed-out boozers in the top tiers who probably thought they were already at a Stones concert, it was pretty much of a disappointment. As the title indicates, this album is the historical record of the event. Opening with "Also sprach Zarathustra" (so that's where Terry Knight went), it soon dissolves into just the sort of mishmash you'd expect when you stop and think about the fact that Elvis has a lot of different fans and feels obligated to give them all a little taste. So you get warmed over Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling") fresh on the heels of dusted-off Dusty Springfield ("You Don't Have To Say You Love Me") right before a medley of fifties stompers and a tip of the crown to Nashville via a tepid "For The Good Times." For all the ultra-shlockers in the house (and there were thousands) Elvis even does a straight-faced "The Impossible Dream." That must really get 'em in Las Vegas. He even changes around "Hound Dog" to where it sounds more like a ballad than the outrageous bit of doggerel it originally was back when Elvis' memories of driving a truck were a whole lot more vivid than they are now. The sound is top quality all the way, though his On Stage LP, released a couple of years ago, is still the most accurate representation of live Presley. Maybe because the gambling casino surroundings were more in keeping with his personality. The accompaniment by the Sweet Inspirations and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps is adequate, though entirely predictable. A supercilious emcee whose previous function at the concert had been to alert the audience to a multitude of over-priced Elvis souvenirs adds just the right postscript of absurdity to the record by intoning pompously at the close of side two: "Elvis has left the building." Who cares?
- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 9/72.
If you want post-comeback Elvis, stick with TV Special and Memphis/Vegas. Unless your home entertainment center is equipped with a magic holograph and seats 20,000, this will not recreate the excitement of that justifiably fabled concert. In fact, it won't even come close. That's what arena gigs are about. C
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
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