Once upon a time, Elvis Aaron Presley ruled the world. Before The Beatles, it was Elvis, and before Elvis… that sort of pop pandemonium just didn’t exist. Television arrived just in time to broadcast this guy’s hips to the world: magical beacons of gyrating, erotic luminosity in glorious black and white. His voice was a treacle cascade influenced by gospel, blues, R&B (and far less hammy than decades of impersonators have led us to recall). And, unusually, here was a singer, front and centre, who was thrashing a guitar – iconifying the whole reckless rock ‘n’ roll THING. 2012 is a funny time, when those kinds of revolutions feel too recent to be ancient history, too distant to be palpably with us. And while some innovators (Brian Eno, Miles Davis, etceteraaaah) have totally maintained or even boosted their street cred as the years have worn on, Elvis has been increasingly perceived as a caricature of himself: a rear-view mirror dangler, a sequined costume option, a warbling husk with a towering mound of wax-black quiff. True, Elvis did himself no favours in this department; his countless films set him up as less musician, more all-round take-home commodity; his 70s jumpsuit might has well have been a sign dangling awkwardly from his neck reading “Hey guys! I’m now irrelevant!” (He needn’t have been). In any case, we tend to remember Elvis as a figure/figurine, a symbol of a zeitgeist, a little set of images. The really cool thing about tonight then, I guess, as I roll up on Mojos doorstep, is that there’s a gig happening that’s neither hallowed tribute nor silly spoof, but a mere nod to a man and his songs. This evening, bands and soloists are playing at the friendly Fremantle venue performing original sets spattered with Elvis covers.
“The King” is of course not only a symbol of red-blooded rock but also of his homeland, and fittingly, the night commences with a performer from the US of A. JEAN MARIE is from San Francisco, though there’s nothing parochial about her sound – it’s a pretty universal kind of subdued guitar-and-vocal affair, recalling at times, interestingly, Scottish songman Donovan Leitch. There are some beautiful hushed/soaring vocal moments, exposed and earnest, interspersed with some shakier ones – overall it’s a beguiling kind of unpretentious bedroom folk. There’s not much to vary it texturally, until a set of floor-bound, tuned bells played with the feet enter the equation (cool)! Marie dons a pair of ludicrous sunglasses and renders Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” in her decidedly pared back style. Which, essentially, reveals the bare bones of the song in all their glimmering loveliness – it’s not a remarkable song in any technical sense, but the intensity of the sentiment, the bittersweet chord progression, remain totally potent.
I’ve waxed lyrical about the DIANAS in recent times, yet no amount of my describing them to you will ever really do them justice. The premise is pretty simple: 3-piece surf punk/garage pop, nodding vigorously and consistently at the 60s, with vocal harmonies all around. But in the wrong hands, that formula could be totally underwhelming. Meanwhile, the collective hand of these three has got some bona fide Midas shit going on. The songs are magnificently crafted; the playing is deft, though pleasantly rough around the edges. The harmonies are stellar, too, which is something sticks to your brain like glitter glue long after the set has ceased. And all of the above are lovingly translated into their Elvis cover (Devil in Disguise). Though bearing little stylistic resemblance to the original, Dianas do manage to conjure up the essence of the man – raucous flair and ice-cool abandon, with attention to detail and lashings of musical proficiency.
And as far as musical proficiency is concerned, few Perth bands have it in such spades as JAMES TEAGUE and his superbly rehearsed/dressed ensemble; even fewer balance it so well with tasteful arranging and adventurous tonal aesthetics. Also, James’ hair is incredible tonight. A nice wink at King-dom without getting naff. Very dainty. Good job lad. The band is utterly slick and slips almost inevitably through their abundance of quality songs, including the recently video-clipped “Strange Birds” and “Valley of Restraint” (in which Jake Chaloner manages to make his guitar sound like a whip cracking, somehow, speaking of lashings of musical proficiency. BOOM!)
They reinvent Elvis’ tunes with a keen ear: “Suspicious Minds” here falls effortlessly into the country-shuffle genre, while “All Shook Up” gets a similar treatment; “Love Me Tender” is reproduced as vintage solo-teague. Not wanting to neglect the true sound of Mr. Presley, however, Teague’s band spring a traditionally upbeat rockabilly version of “All Shook Up” on him at the set’s conclusion, which makes excellent jiving material and satiates the more purist punters in the room.
Purism is fun, but not exactly what the night’s all about. These songs, self-evident in their high level of quality, endure but don’t need to be accompanied by any kinds of sublime, pop-royalty auras. Elvis was plenty of things, some great, some downright gross, but too often do we ignore his downright excellent tunes and ultimately humble additions to the shape of modern music, in exchange for parody-type recollections of Elvis the Personality.™ This evening’s free from grandiose vibes, dense with gentle admiration and fun. Elvis may no longer rule the world of pop music, but plenty of the philosophies he made music by have visible and invisible legacies that follow us around, in entirely cool ways. Pelvic movements optional.