NEW YORK -- The overhead lights dimmed at New York's sold-out Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night, the ominous theme to the movie "2001" filled the room and, wonder of wonders, the visage of Elvis Presley loomed over the stage.
It was the King at his zenith, lean and sharp. Crooning, groaning and thrusting his pelvis, he sang hits and concert staples such as "Burning Love," "Suspicious Minds" and "Proud Mary." Meanwhile, his longtime backup band -- featuring the legendary James Burton on guitar, Jerry Scheff on bass and the Sweet Inspirations on background vocals -- played along.
Elvis was back in the building, even if it was only his ghost -- a projected image of the late rock idol dominating a massive screen.
In other words, this was a sold-out concert with a dead headliner.
Welcome to Elvis: The Concert, an eight-city, 10-show tour that played three nights last weekend at Radio City Music Hall before it ended Sunday in Philadelphia. The event uses a 20-foot screen and two smaller, adjoining screens to broadcast vintage film and television footage of Elvis, dropping everything but the King's legendary lead vocals and allowing a live band with a number of Elvis' original touring cast to accompany the singer.
Saturday night's Radio City Music Hall show came as close as you can get to what might have been the experience of a real-life Elvis concert, starting when the classic "2001" theme ended and the singer descended from the ceiling in two dimensions -- onscreen -- and began singing "CC Rider." As if it were Elvis in the flesh, the live band fell right in sync.
After thunderous applause, the audience seemed awestruck and mesmerized by the vision of Elvis, looking trim, tan and ultra-fetching in his trademark white pantsuit. All the concert footage used in the show dated from 1968-73. It was the pre-tubby, pre-druggy Elvis, the King at the height of his Vegas-circuit days.
The musicians are much older than they were in Presley's heyday, but they provided yeoman support on the singer's extensive repertoire of popular and lesser-known hits. Favorite cover tunes ("Bridge Over Troubled Water," "I Can't Stop Loving You") were interspersed among the King's classics, from the rockabilly rave-up "Hound Dog" to the latter-day, socially conscious ballad "In The Ghetto."
After three songs, the shock and absurdity of the event wore off, and suddenly, it
began to feel more like an interactive movie theater than a concert. One woman even smuggled in a large bin of popcorn. Her two 10-year-old boys sat quietly throughout the two-and-a-half-hour concert, sedated by the numbing effects of watching unfamiliar footage (to them, at least) of this sideburned icon unspool on a movie screen.
Despite the undying reverence for Elvis, the unique nature of the event and the elegance of the setting, few dressed up for the Radio City show. Most of the fans looked as if they were attending a monster-truck rally rather than attending a historic, albeit unusual, outing in Manhattan.
Only a handful of fans dressed the part of the King, and even those impersonators toned down the pompadours and lapels so that one really had to search the crowd to find the look-alikes. Liz Veglianti, a New Jersey resident who had come to see the show, was thankful for the lack of impersonators. "I think they have respect for Elvis not to come dressed up to this," she said.
Perhaps everyone there wanted the real thing -- or, at least, a virtual-reality version of the real thing.
Veglianti, who identified herself as an Elvis fan on the basis of liking the "big hits," was there with her friend Terry Williamson, who was a decidedly bigger Elvis fan. Although he had never seen Elvis live in concert, Williamson was spied tearing up during this pseudo-live performance.
"I think tonight really is a night to recognize the people behind the
scenes," said Williamson, alluding to the most sentimental aspect of the
evening. That would be the presence of the touring cast -- Burton, Scheff and the rest -- providing a living link to Presley, who died in 1977 at the age of 42.
During the concert, the virtual Elvis even stopped to introduce members of the performing ensemble. Each musician responded onstage by rising and smiling to the audience. It was strange, and almost convincing. Throughout the show, these veteran players displayed tremendous effort and enthusiasm. A directory, available at the concert, contained interesting accounts of what each performer had done before and after touring with Elvis.
"We're very pleased," said Todd Morgan, director of Creative Resources at
Elvis Presley Enterprises, which produced the concert in conjunction with
SEG Productions. Claiming that the eight-city tour was a test, Morgan said that discussions were in the works for a lengthier tour at the end of this year.
Morgan also stated that other estates of deceased performers had
contacted Graceland for information about the concert, apparently expressing
interest about doing tours of their own, although Morgan wouldn't
elaborate on who had inquired. One can only guess.
Kurt Cobain? Karen Carpenter? John Lennon? Jimi Hendrix?
It's virtually impossible to say at this point.