Elvis Aron Presley departed this world on 16 August, 1977. Even if you delight in conspiracy theories and believe the film Elvis Found Alive was a documentary, he is currently unavailable for personal appearances. So his presence at the O2 Arena and five other UK cities in November was confined to giant screens. Actually present on the stage beneath was the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under conductor Robin Smith plus a rhythm section and three backing singers.
It’s not the first time something like this has been done — former members of Presley’s band took a similar show around the world and it worked surprisingly well. A friend suggested that the symphonic version would be like ‘a whole orchestra turning up to do karaoke’ and I must confess I had my own doubts, too.
I needn’t have worried. In big arenas you tend to watch the screens anyway, so before too long Elvis at the O2 felt like any other large-scale concert except for the lack of a faraway figure singing under the spotlight. Instead, the human (if slightly remodelled) face of the show belonged to Priscilla Presley, who divorced Elvis in 1973 but stepped in after he died and turned his $1 million estate into a $100 million empire.
She introduced the orchestra wearing a black Morticia Addams-style gown and reappeared later as a candy-striped southern belle, gliding into the audience for meet-and-greet moments that were beamed up on screen. Priscilla, lest we forget, was an excellent actress in Dallas and the Naked Gun films and is now a regular on the UK panto circuit. She was relaxed and natural with the audience, which resembled a pollster’s perfect sample of mild-mannered Middle England.
This orchestral tour (with more dates to come in Europe and Australia) follows the release of two albums by Elvis with the Royal Philharmonic. Both sailed effortlessly to the top of the UK charts, snatching back (from Madonna) Presley’s lost crown as the solo artist with the most No. 1 albums. There’s a lot to like about them, too: the orchestral flourishes in ‘Burning Love’ bring to mind ‘I Am The Walrus’ and early ELO, while the stately new introduction to ‘Love Me Tender’ could almost be Elgar.
But put the same concept into a sold-out arena packed with 20,000 fans and these critical abstractions fall clanking to the ground as the whole thing just takes off and flies. With no audible join between the rock and classical players this huge but terrific ensemble attacked the songs with such energy and enjoyment it was a joy to be there. To hear them tear into a grade-A classic like ‘Suspicious Minds’ brought roars of approval and sent shivers down the spine.
Presley’s extraordinary voice, most often heard in a domestic setting, became ever more impressive as it soared over the top of the orchestra. Moments to treasure include the always-surprising full-voiced finale to ‘It’s Now Or Never’, the control and subtlety of ‘Don’t’ (one of three early numbers played without a performance on screen) and his playful lyric changes during ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ (‘Do you gaze at your bald head/ And wish you had hair?’)
The technical achievement was remarkable. To synchronise a symphony orchestra with a patchwork of recorded vocals and have it all come out with perfect sound quality and bursting with dynamics is no small feat. And the attention to detail in the video sequencing made me smile. When a back-in-the-day guitar solo by James Burton or a piano break by Glen D. Hardin was featured on the left screen their here-in-the-hall equivalents would pop up on the right one.
It was emotional, too. When the show entered its final stretch after ‘Love Me Tender’ eyes began to glisten all around. For me, this sadder mood was prompted by the increasing poignancy of Presley’s absence. He would, Priscilla had assured us, be with us in spirit, watching over it all with benevolent pride. But what if he’d never had the heart attack that killed him at 42? What if he’d lost some weight, kicked his prescription drug habit and kept performing, finally touring Europe as he’d been planning when he died? Wouldn’t Elvis Aron Presley have just loved to star in a show like this?
It never happened. But the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the band, the singers and everyone else who pulled together this superb entertainment gave us the next best thing.