When it comes to Las Vegas, here's something to remember: Elvis Presley ruined everything. Not Elvis' actual Vegas performances; those were very much within the Vegas tradition of adult showmanship. No, it was that very tradition that Elvis helped to dismantle in the mid-'50s by basically making youth culture the defining barometer of popular music.
Let's back up a little here. I very recently came to love the music of Elvis Presley and have found myself blown away not only by his electrifying '50s records, but also by the raw pathos of his late-'60s and early-'70s material (most of which was recorded live). But listening to the entirety of the Live From Las Vegas series (recently issued to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary), it's easy to understand why performers like Frank Sinatra were so perplexed at his popularity.
This batch of discs brings together prime-era (the mid-'50s through the late-'60s) live sets from Louis Prima, Bobby Darin, Nancy Wilson, Wayne Newton and Dean Martin, as well as the series' title disc, which is a compilation of concert tracks from regulars (the aforementioned cats, plus the likes of Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Sammy Davis, Buddy Rich), and High Rollers, a similar collection of studio tracks. There's also a '70s set from Elvis and, bizarrely, a 1986 Sands show by Sinatra. (Seriously, to have Sinatra represented by an '80s engagement no matter how intimate the room or unreleased the recording is a crime.)
Now, before you think this review is going to take a kitsch-is-great turn, think again. The vintage concerts are simply amazing. These were shows, dependent not upon flashy sets or costume changes, but on the singers' magnetism and musical ability. Darin just completely kills. Prima's set is as fun and infectious as a Weezer gig, but it swings a whole lot harder. These folks were excellent singers, deeply concerned with giving a full-force performance every night. (OK, maybe Judy Garland had other things on her mind ….) Where their studio albums could slop on the cheese a tad too thickly (to wit: Sammy Davis' string-and-chorus-laden album version of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight"), concerts were a completely different story. Sweating in front of well-lubricated adults who were there to have some adult fun, the entertainers worked in a totally different musical environment than the herd-the-kids-in world of today. The deep roots of jazz that had been commodified in the same way that Elvis commodified the blues made the sets engaging and, in a perverse way, somewhat challenging. Had this jazz-pop mutation continued through the '60s and '70s without rock & roll to bump up against who knows what modern music would sound like today? Impossible to know, but fun to consider.
Again, it was all Elvis' fault. The evolution that led from vaudeville to jazz to these showrooms was slow but deliberate; and the nuclear bomb that was Elvis completely obliterated that forward motion, making a "Vegas show" instantly anachronistic. Don't let that fool you. Despite their rather noxious retro-ironic marketing, these releases help to reposition this music, at least for a while, as running a parallel course to rock & roll, therefore making it worthy of attention.