Elvis – That’s the Way It Is (box set review)

Elvis Presley – That’s the Way It Is (box set) (RCA / Legacy) review

A rare opportunity to marvel at Presley’s prowess as a live performer

When it comes to Elvis, you’d think that by 2014, there wouldn’t be any more “firsts.”  But, with a reissue of That’s the Way It Is, in a new 8-CD, 2-DVD set, it marks the first time that the album and movie of the same name have been available in the same package.

The deluxe set includes the original, 12-track album, which acted as a pseudo-soundtrack to the movie, plus no less than six full concert performances, in audio form.  On the DVD side, you get two completely different versions of the film – the original, 1970 theatrical movie, and the extended, 2001 Special Edition.  All of this adds up to another in a long line of incredible, multi-disc sets from his record company.

Like most of his albums from the Seventies, the original LP of That’s the Way It Is is a hodge podge – featuring some of the live performances from the movie, mixed with recently-recorded studio tracks.  While you might expect it to sound disjointed, the record holds together quite well – due, in part, to the high quality of the concert footage, which has the audience mixed quite low – giving off the feeling that these could be studio tracks as well.

“Patch it Up” is an underrappreciated rocker co-written by Eddie Rabbit, while Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is grandiose – perfect for Vegas.  Few artists ever rivaled the Righteous Brothers’ version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” yet Elvis imparts so much emotion, that makes it his own.

Disc one is rounded out with bonus material, including single mixes (“Patch it Up” is even better in mono), and early takes (“Bridge Over Troubled Water” sounds less deliberate).

The real treat, and the main selling point to this box set, is the SIX full concerts that MGM filmed at the International Hotel in Las Vegas to get footage for the movie.  The band had to learn a staggering 50 songs, so the setlist each night is different.  And, it’s what’s between the songs – Elvis’ banter with the crowd, that is just as entertaining.

Disc 2 is the opening night on August 10, and as you might expect, the performances are juiced up and full of nervous energy.  He opens with his first hit, “That’s All Right,” before segueing into “Mystery Train” where he confesses “feeling like Johnny Cash.”  “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is noticeably fast, while he changes the words to “Love Me Tender” as he kisses ladies in the audience.

Elvis’ timing was impeccable.  One second, he’s clowning his way through a Glen Campbell imitation, the next he’s tearing through a spine-tingling rendition of “Hound Dog.”  He could literally turn it on – at will.  And, his band was always at the ready.  Although the banter is different each night – he makes a point to always mention his first performance on the Ed Sullivan show, where the host looked at Presley wiggling his hips uttered “sum-a-bitch,” and decided to film him from the waist up – which always gets a good laugh from the crowd.

On the Midnight Show from August 11 included on Disc 4, Presley seems atypically focused – he plays it straight through “Love Me Tender” (the one time in all the performances), plus he digs back for some real gems like “Love Me” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”

By contrast, the very next show, the Dinner performance on August 12 featured on Disc 5, is completely disjointed – Elvis misses his cue to begin the show, the band has to restart “20 Days & 20 Nights,” and “Polk Salad Annie” is completely off the rails.  Yet, “Heartbreak Hotel” is a definite keeper – slower, a real deep blues, and helps save the show.

For the later performance that same night included on Disc 6, it features a rather vocal crowd that keeps screaming out requests.  Highlights here include a surprising medley of “Little Sister” with the Beatles’ “Get Back,” and a rough take on “I Was the One.”  It also marks the only inclusion of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in these concerts.

The final show on August 13 found on Disc 7, finds Elvis spotlighting more of his recent hits, including “Don’t Cry Daddy” and “In the Ghetto.”

There’s even an entire disc of the band rehearsing, where you get to hear Presley run through rough versions of songs that didn’t make the shows, like “Cottonfields” and “Froggy Went a Courtin’” – not essential by any means.  Elvis is often off-mic, but it is fun to hear him lead the band, and whip them into shape.

Of the two versions of the movie, the more recent “Special Edition” from 2001 is far superior – concentrating more on Elvis, and the effort that went into putting on this major production.  The original, 1970 edit focuses on some of the rather strange fans of his music, and is hopelessly dated.  In either edition, you do get to see Elvis kissing LOTS of women in the audience – did he REALLY do that?

For those not wanting to delve in quite so deep, there is a two-disc Legacy Edition, featuring the original album, plus single mixes and alternate takes on Disc one, and the ragged, but never-before available August 12 Dinner show on Disc two.

That’s the Way It Is helps remind us that Elvis Presley was an incredible entertainer with few equals.  His sexual magnetism, quick wit and powerful voice all shine through in this excellent set from RCA Legacy.  —Tony Peters