It is 46 years since Elvis Presley died, aged 42. It will soon be 50. At the time, his ardent followers were inconsolable. He was the first god of rock ’n’ roll, transforming the very notion of popular music. He looked like a cross between a pouting Grecian marble statue and an androgynous Pre-Raphaelite wraith. He wore mascara. He was so sexy he couldn’t be filmed below the waist. He sent the Bible Belt into a frenzy of disapproval.

But Presley’s career rose exponentially and then fell cruelly – almost, it seemed, buffoonishly – to earth. The legend deteriorated into scandal and snark. Fat Elvis. The disgrace of Graceland. Only the true believers stayed true. Then the music industry got really organised. Run by cleverer sharks, not vaudeville hucksters like Presley’s manager, the bogus Colonel Tom Parker. Other music came along. Beatles, Prog, Punk… and Elvis and his extraordinary presence and achievement was lost to indifference or sniggering gossip.

It was not before time that Baz Luhrmann’s recent over-reaching, but terrific, biopic reminded us of the greatness and originality that was Elvis. It helped that, in Austin Butler, Baz found an actor with charisma – even if it was still only a fraction of what EP had in his prime.

So Edge of Reality (a project driven by Paul Grabowsky and featuring singers Deborah Conway and Joe Camilleri) has done a very fine thing in taking Elvis out of the hands of the impersonators, with their quiffs and high collars, and re-introducing us to Presley the musician, the vocal stylist, the operatic showman and conduit of irresistible musical intimacy.

With a splendid seven-piece band and Grabowsky running the show from the keyboard, this is a “re-imagining” of Presley’s extensive and interestingly diverse repertoire. This is not a Greatest Hits show, although many favourites are in there. Nor is it the standard showband. The arrangements are intriguing, the musicians all first-rate.

Heralded by a solo flute-like instrument (was it a duduk that reeds-person Mirko Guerrini was playing?), Conway opens the proceedings with a lesser-known song – “Burning Love” (1972). Dressed in a white trouser suit with long scarf, she reminds us of the strength of her range and vocal presence.

It is followed by the only direct reference to Presley – a quote, perhaps from one of the late-career Las Vegas season shows, where he is ruminating on the cruelty of the media speculations about his health and private life. It sits in the air for the remainder of the evening. The persecution and mortification of Presley, the silent ogling, and the lack of recognition of his legacy.

Conway follows with “Hound Dog” from 1956. It works differently when sung by a woman – first Big Mama Thornton, now Deborah Conway. Gender changes the trajectory of the lyrics.

The excellent Camilleri enters for an upbeat version of “Mystery Train”, Presley’s first recorded release on Sun Records in 1953. The song swings fast, with less of the eerie phantom tone of the original that inspired Greil Marcus to use the title for his 1974 history of American music (it featured an essay, “Presliad”, identifying Elvis as one of its central pillars). Instead, it has a New Orleans festive mood, and Grabowsky relishes his solo.

Deborah Conway and Joe Camilleri. Photo: Claudio Raschella

Camilleri sings a slow ballad, “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”; Conway sings the Hound Dog B-side “Don’t Be Cruel”. Conway’s reading of “Love Me Tender” does full credit to the 1956 Presley classic and in duet Camilleri is in perfect accord. He follows with a highlight of his own – the title song for the show, “Edge of Reality”. Preceded by a dazzling sax duet with Guerrini, Camilleri turns this obscure song into a highlight with Fem Belling contributing on electric violin.

That’s All Right” – the Arthur Crudup song that Presley recorded for Sun with Scotty Moore and Bill Black – is turned from a country blues track to a full Kansas City big-band number. Grabowsky stretches the syncopations to twanging point, with Craig Fermanis adding tasty electric guitar, Phillip Rex commanding on bass, and Eugene Ball bugling on trumpet.

As the program builds, so do the big hits and Presley signatures. Camilleri delivers a rousing “In the Ghetto” from 1969 – Presley’s only nod to the protest pop of the period – and Conway matches “Love Me Tender” with a powerful rendering of “Unchained Melody”, which Presley famously sang for the first time just months before his death. “Suspicious Minds” – also now welded to the Presley myth – has the vocalists alternating and merging with effortless connection.

And, how to end? “Viva Las Vegas”, of course ­– from the 1964 film, but also a reminder of the King’s legendary season in Nevada. The musicians add more solos, including Craig Beard on the vibraphone and Darryn Farrugia on drums replacing Niko Schauble at less than a day’s notice. He first joined the band at the sound check.

Edge of Reality is a festival highlight and Grabowsky has created a show that deserves more touring time. We are seeing and hearing familiar material made enticingly new. It is boldly re-arranged with no pelvic moves or vocal mimicry – but Elvis is definitely in the building.

Edge of Reality – Songs of Elvis Presley. Photo: Claudio Raschella

Edge of Reality plays one more show in the Dunstan Playhouse tonight (June 16) as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which continues until June 24. See more stories and reviews on InReview’s Cabaret Festival page.

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