Review: Black Angels in Vegas

Elvis drops the "F" word and delivers a dynamite concert!

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson. Copyright protected.

Black Angels in Vegas (book + 2CD set).  Released by Venus Productions (VP 2009-06), 2009

EIN Note: The musical component of Black Angels in Vegas was previously released by the Rock Legend label as Night Fever in Vegas, but with a lesser sound quality.


Black Angels in Vegas is the recently released new book and 2 disc set from Venus Productions.  And what a beauty it is!!

The Book

The book component is great and really complements the music with its 84 pages laden with many quality full color photos from the 30 August 1974 show and strong narrative. 

In particular, if you read the narrative for the accompanying audio discs, the text makes you feel as though you are actually a part of proceedings:

At this point the listener will notice that Elvis was in a very relaxed and rather talkative mood. Fooling around with the (now famous) “well, well, well” intro of the old Ray Charles classic, I Got A Woman.  Jokingly he asked the audience after a half-hearted start: “You came over to see this?”

The page design is very good with plenty of white space allowing a pleasing balance between the text and visuals.  While the book is relatively small sized (approximately B6), the quality glossy paper stock allows the colourful visuals to shine.  And the photos are a veritable visual feast as there is one incredible photo after another.  Apart from many shots of the King in action on stage there is also a treasure trove of archival material.  Only 3 photos from the 30 August midnight show are known to exist and they are presented in the book.  Believe me, you will be very happy when you view the stunning photos in Black Angels in Vegas!

The text is wonderfully evocative and covers the lead up to Elvis’ Summer Season in Vegas and in so doing provides welcome context and history for what proved to be a strong if uneven season for the King in Vegas.  In relation to the earlier June 1974 tour the informative narrative records:

The following June tour was very good and Elvis looked great.  This probably because he did some Karate training in preparation for his 90 minute Karate presentation planned for July 4th with Ed Parker.

A foreword by Pjotr Guralnjew (a play on noted Elvis biographer, Peter Guralnick) is followed by 7 absorbing chapters including a great overview of 1974; Elvis’ Summer Season in Vegas; the 30 August midnight show; tour dates and tracklisting.  Many readers will welcome the chapter ‘Otagai Ni Rei, an account of Elvis’ great passion for karate.  It is accompanied by another set of impressive color photos relating to its subject matter.  Regarding the proposed New Gladiators film, we are informed of a fascinating piece of information:

Elvis also wrote up a scene for the end of the film, in which he’d stand on a windblown hilltop, performing the Lord’s Prayer in Native American sign language (to emphasise the spirit of inclusiveness in the Martial Arts).  As the camera panned back , we’d see that Elvis not alone on the hill.  He’d be surrounded by several Martial Arts masters, coming from different styles………The words “The Beginning” would mark the end of the film.

The sturdy hard cover allows the two discs to be conveniently housed in plastic sleeves inside the front and back cover.

The Music

The sound quality on both full color picture discs is excellent.  There are few imperfections and a great balance between Elvis’ vocals, his backing groups and the instrumentation.  In fact the King is in incredibly good spirits during this show in stark contrast to other shows in his 1974 Summer Season where he was in a much different emotional and psychological state.

Disc 1 opens with an energetic CC Rider which undoubtedly gets Elvis’ very receptive audience in the right mood for a night of rock ‘n’ roll.  Elvis then jokes with audience, at one point asking:

 “Do you want it louder?........I don’t want to part your hair!”

Elvis then lunges into a six minutes of I Got A Woman/Amen.  Another high energy number complemented by Elvis joking with “the original Deep Throat”, JD Sumner and his ‘lively dud’ microphone.  On Amen, JD gets oh so low that at one point he almost sounds like a foghorn.  Amazing stuff!

After I Got A Woman Elvis says Good evening, my name is Tom Jones”.

A solid rendition of Love Me follows and Elvis then goes into a lively version of one of two Olivia Newton songs.  If You Love Me is sung with conviction and is a most enjoyable recording.  The emotive It’s Midnight captures the audience in its poignant spell.  Conjuring images of darkness at the titular time it builds beautifully and how this song is not better known is a real mystery.  One of the highlights!

An initially musically sparse Big Boss Man has Elvis laughing, before the orchestration builds and Elvis gets right into the groove.  A fan favourite, Fever, is next to light up the atmosphere as Elvis starts the song with “it’s dark up here”.  Great pacing by Elvis and his backing allows this classic to resonate for its first half.  A number of amusing additions by Elvis bring a smile to the listener’s face as Elvis’ delivery makes the second half of the song delightfully disintegrate into near parody. A rapid fire All Shook Up takes many of us back to those halcyon days of the 50s.  Elvis is such good and happy form that he can’t help himself with small jokes as he sings.

A playful interaction with a female member of the audience cracks us up before Elvis resumes singing with Softly As I Leave You, beautifully supported by the incomparable voice of Sherrill Neilson.  Another highlight, stunningly produced by both singers and the audience responds appropriately. 

Elvis decides “to get serious for a moment” and after a few words of Hound Dog he’s joking again and asking for some Gatorade which he informs everyone “is good for the gator”.  “Elvee” then momentarily breaks back into Hound Dog but again stops.  Finally, Elvis and his group embark on a frenetic, up tempo interpretation with the orchestra horns an cymbals keeping pace. 

The most infamous incident of the show occurs with Elvis responding to a member of the audience who yells out “I hate you, Elvis”.  In response the King, in a quite matter of fact manner, says “Fuck you”. It is a brief moment and the story behind it has a number of sides.

Another crowd favourite, An American Trilogy, takes us away to the brutality and lost lives of the Civil War, before giving us ultimate hope for a better world.  Trilogy never ceases to stir emotions deep inside and create inner reflection.

After introducing Dr. Nick’s son, Dean, Elvis commences everyone’s favourite song, Suspicious Minds.  As usual, Elvis masterfully makes the song ebb and flow from high energy peaks to forlorn lush valleys. Suspicious Minds ends disc 1 and leaves us on a great high anticipating disc 2.

Disc 1: 42’ 59”

Disc 2 opens with 8 and a half minutes of band introductions and Elvis telling stories.  He is fine form joking and outgoing.  He amusingly says the Sweet Inspirations were originally called the Crew Cuts, refers to 5 day Stay Free pads! and explains why he had the stage ramp built for his shows in Vegas.  He also talks about Tom Jones, the titular ‘fat’ black angels and says how proud he is of Red West and his karate school in Memphis.

Following a short explanation of Kung Fu and karate, we segue into a cracking, orchestral version of If You Talk In Your Sleep.  A more detailed discussion about his passion for karate follows before the listener is treated to one of Elvis’ favourite songs at the time, Help Me.  Elvis’ vocal is nicely paced and his heartfelt connection to the lyric is well evident.  The second of Olivia Newton John’s hit songs, Let Me Be There, is up next, complete with reprise.  While there is a dip in the audio volume during this song it does not detract from another well sung musical offering.  It is another example of the superb quality of the audio with great balance between artist and backing.

A highlight of most Elvis shows during the 70s was his powerful of How Great Thou Art.  The version on Black Angels in Vegas is one of his best as the rolling thunder of the song resonates throughout the showroom.  Finely executed backing vocals from JD Sumner and the Stamps play nicely against Elvis’ increasingly more forceful power.

Hitting those high notes he was renowned for, How Great Thou Art is a standout track.

I wonder how many fans have married with the Hawaiian Wedding Song playing in the background?  I suspect quite a few and hearing it on Black Angels in Vegas you can understand why.  Elvis gives it a bit more punch on some of the higher notes compared to his Blue Hawaii recording, but it still retains the important underlying love melody.

A fan asks for You Gave Me A Mountain and Elvis obliges with a soaring version of one of his power ballads.  Interestingly, throughout the song he slightly changes his delivery of the lyrics.  After wishing his audience well, Elvis rounds out one of his strongest shows with the customary Can’t Help Falling In Love.  He does not rush the lyrics as he sometimes did and in so doing gives the song the respect and delivery it rightfully deserves.  As the closing riff plays Elvis can be heard saying “Thank you very much”.

As you may have already noted, Elvis was in a particularly talkative mood throughout the show.  Importantly, during his monologues there is no slurring of his words, just a consummate artist connecting well with his audience. 

Disc 2: 43’ 22”

Verdict: Black Angels in Vegas is a stunning release.  Both the hardback book and the 2 musically vibrant discs are delightful; and Elvis’ Las Vegas midnight show from August 30, 1974 has never before been released in such good audio, high energy quality.  It is much richer than the more hollow sound that most soundboards,such as Night Fever in Vegas, offer. Black Angels in Vegas is one of 2009’s best releases!!

Track listing: 2001 Theme / See See Rider / Dialogue / I Got A Woman - Amen / Love Me / If You Love Me / It's Midnight / Big Boss Man / Fever / All Shook Up / Softly As I Leave You / Hound Dog / American Trilogy / Elvis introduces Dean Nichopoulos / Suspicious Minds / Band Introductions / Karate Monologue / If You Talk In Your Sleep / Elvis introduces Kang Rhee / Karate Dialogue / Help Me / Let Me Be There (+ reprise) / How Great Thou Art (+ reprise) / Hawaiian Wedding Song / You Gave Me A Mountain / Can't Help Falling In Love / Closing Vamp

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