Adelaide Festival Centre. Dunstan Playhouse. 14 June 2023
Elvis didn’t write any songs himself and only a few did he co-write, so the “songbook” refers to his famous audial oeuvre. Music meister, famed composer, musical director and educator Paul Grabowsky (no relation) gives Elvis the jazz treatment with mixed success. For some songs, it just seems inappropriate, while for others it adds class. And tribute shows are always a balance between giving the fans the familiar and something new. There is no denying the sheer creativity of Grabowsky’s arrangements and the virtuosity of his musicians. It is great fun to guess what the heck the song is, given the jazzed-up introduction, and then to smile at some recognisable notes.
Grabowsky grabbed a couple of household names to sing his songs. Joe Camilleri has been blowing the blues, rock, and R&B with his sax since the 60s and made quite a few bands famous, ie: Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons (he’s Jo) and The Black Sorrows. Debora Conway was in grade school when Joe was playing with The King Bees. She won Best Female Artist in the 1992 ARIA Music Awards for her debut album Spring of Pearls and garnered numerous subsequent nominations for the following nine albums of her career.
Debra Conway started the Elvis tribute with a torturous version of Burning Love that I don’t think even she wanted to sing. But she had something on her mind. Right after the song, Debra delivered this incredible rant against the tabloid press for reporting she was strung out in some hotel room when she had the flu. Then she focused on the source of the story, an anonymous chambermaid or something, and said she’d like to “break the neck of the son-of-a-bitch,” and closed with “pull [his/her] God damn tongue out by the roots.” Well, you can imagine, oxygen left the theatre in the collective gasp from the audience and the musicians. Not the right thing to do.
Things went better after that, but slowly. It took a while for the audience to click with the new arrangements, especially when they made the song unfamiliar or thematically at odds with memory, and Debra’s extraordinary rant. Joe was next and they took turns with only a few chorus duets. Joe never stopped chomping on something in his mouth and it was amazing he could play or sing and chew at the same time. I don’t think they even teach that at WAAPA; Joe is definitely his own man. His tender saxophone and emotive crooning can be magic.
Joe and Debra took a lesson from the band and thought – if they don’t know the music by heart, why should I? Both relied heavily on song sheets mounted on distracting music stands, and songs seemed pinched when they were unsure. Joe had his head buried so deep in the music stand in the encore you couldn’t see his face.
Joe gave an evocative In The Ghetto in his inimitable style. Debra hit her straps with a moving and deeply emotional plea in I Need Your Love. This was the highlight of the night and was given an especially appreciative round of applause. Bravo! She followed this with an equally fetching Suspicious Minds with Joe pitching in for the latter choruses. Now the show was cooking but it was three-quarters over.
In this tag-team songfest, the skinny programme notes leaves blame unknown for having the singers retreat from their solos to their separate corners stage left and stage right, sitting without even a flower or a candle on their own little cabaret table looking forlornly like they were waiting for a lover who wasn’t coming.
The show definitely lifted as time went by and the night ended with raucous applause. My guess is that the sturdy appreciation was for Grabowsky’s arrangements, the band’s musicianship, and the role that Debra and Joe have played in the audience’s music-listening lives, and lesser for this particular show.
When: 14 to 15 Jun
Where: Dunstan Playhouse