Elvis’ Friends at Sage, Gateshead on 7th May 2015

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On our miserable Election night there’s a disappointing turnout for what the show’s publicity describes as “the best Elvis tribute act in the world” but the warmth of the applause from the slightly older crowd belies their numbers and lifts the atmosphere. Of course, this being Elvis, there is a slight whiff of cheese in the air but wisely the show steers clear of jumpsuits, karate moves and there’s no hamburgers in sight anywhere.

The show opens with an unusual MC in the shape of Marlyn Mason who appeared as one of Elvis’ leading ladies in one of his fluffy 60’s films “The Trouble With Girls”. She also appeared in dozens of other 60’s shows including “Dr Kildare”, “Bonanza” and the fabulous “Man From U.N.C.L.E”. Marylyn tells us a couple of anecdotes about what it was like working with El and she’s reliably fulsome in her praise and credits Elvis as a “gentleman” who was much given to mischievous pranks whilst filming. Thankfully her breathy gushing praise are kept to a minimum as she introduces “Elvis” who in real life goes by the name of Dwight Icenhower and he bears a remarkable resemblance to the King. His band including Bob Lanning (drums) and Duke Bardwell (bass) who both played with Presley in the 70’s so the band has some credibility. The remaining members of the band are Carl (guitar), Damian a flamboyant Frenchman on keyboards and two tremendous backing sings Retta and Chantelle.

The band cook up an authentic rock n roll barrel-house boogie as they launch into “All Shook Up” with Dwight/Elvis resplendent in black with bequiffed hair, curled lip and shaking leg. He manages to get Presley’s sound without resorting to caricature and there’s very few “uh-hu’s”. The sneer is in place though and is pretty convincing. They crack on at a pretty frantic pace romping through “I Got a Woman” Las Vegas style and with a shout of “Let’s Rock n Roll” they thunder through a terrific “Proud Mary” with the girls providing an authentic Elvis feel to the show. Things drop down a peg for a tender “Don’t Cry Daddy” that Elvis always claimed as one of his favourites. The band barely pause before smashing into a thundering “Long Tall Sally” with some classic piano and a shout out for the great Little Richard. The girls come into their own on a majestic “I Can’t Stop Loving You” that’s smartly followed by “C.C.Rider” a song that Elvis usually opened his spectacular Las Vegas shows with.

The show is well paced with ballads and rockers and so we get a sultry “Love Me Tender” followed by an emotional “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” that Dwight clearly loves as he delivers a powerful heartfelt version. “In the Ghetto” follows and it’s a stirring performance of one of Elvis’ best loved songs and is a big hit with the crowd. Dwight has some of Presley’s irreverent humour too as he says “I’m gonna do one of those “Well” songs now – Elvis had about 400 of ’em!” as he bellows “W-E-L-L…. since my baby left me – I’ve found a new place to dwell” and we hit a sultry “Heartbreak Hotel” followed by a rousing “The Wonder of You” after-which the whole band look a bit taken aback by the loud cheers of the crowd. Dwight recovers his composure as he talks his way through the introduction to my highlight of the night a dynamic “Polk Salad Annie” that’s really wonderful and soooo authentic it’s scary. Dwight shuffles off to change into his gold jacket leaving guitarist Carl to blast through a Carl Perkins tune, “Matchbox”, that is fast and furious.

Marlyn returns to regale us with more tales about Elvis on the set of the film and we learn that he was fond of setting off fire crackers and that in order to get Elvis to look surprised for one particular shot she had the dubious honour of lowering the zip on his pants. Alas, no further details were revealed but she still had that twinkle in her eye.

The band return for a second set rooted more in Elvis’ classic 50’s and early 60’s material so we get the classics – “Hound Dog”, ” Don’t be Cruel” and a swampy “Crawfish” from the film “King Creole”. The best you could say about Presley’s 60’s films were that they were “kitsch” but there were a few songs that are worth remembering and “Crawfish” was one such. Thankfully we didn’t get “Do the Clam” or “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car”. However we did get a stirring “T.R.O.U.B.L.E” and a storming “Blue Suede Shoes” that featured an authentic James Burton guitar solo from Carl topping it off. Dwight tucks himself in behind the piano and delivers a gorgeous and very well sung “Unchained Melody” that highlights that he’s a great singer in his own right and not merely a feeble copy of Presley’s greatness as a vocalist..

The crowd come alive for the closing section of the show that thunders through “Way Down” (a song that was newly released at the time of Presley’s death in 1977 and immediately rocketed to the No.1 slot around the world), a stupendous singalong “Suspicious Minds”, a frantic “Burning Love” and then, finally, a gentle sweet crowd singalong to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”. The crowd are on their feet and Dwight and the band linger for selfies as they blow kisses into the cheering crowd.

An excellent fun show that keeps on the right right of kitsch and truly is a tribute to Elvis’ talent as an entertainer and singer and, of course, those wonderful songs. This tremendous fun show highlights Elvis’ enduring appeal almost 40 years after his tragic and untimely death.

Reviewer: Greg Johnson

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