I first saw Lisa Marie Presley play to a gymnasium in Anderson, SC. Nine years later watching her perform at Shelby’s Don Gibson Theatre Saturday it was apparent Elvis Presley’s only daughter has come a long way as a musician and performer.
With her fourth husband Michael Lockwood - a lankier Tom Petty-as-mad-hatter-looking guitarist and the musical director of her band - Presley has tweaked her sound, her band, and her ease on stage. When Presley released her first album, “To Whom It May Concern,” in 2003, the world looked on with curiosity. I saw her open for Chris Isaak on the tour that followed. Although her album was good and she had a strong, smoky voice like her father’s, she seemed uncomfortable with the attention in television interviews and on stage. Not to mention the sound in that gym was anything but forgiving. Nine years and two more albums later, that’s all changed.
Saturday she played for a crowd of a few hundred who hung on her every note. In a floor-length fitted white and black diamond-patterned gown (they asked no photos be taken) she started out like a classic torch singer belting “So Long” from her latest album, “Storm & Grace” followed by another one from the 2012 album (and my favorite) “Over Me.” The sheer backdrop with rows of dotted lights peeking through gave the setting a lounge feel while the band jammed like a well-oiled, modern Southern blues-rock version of the Band.
In the hands of her band - decked out like carnival barkers in top hats and vintage velvet - the songs became playful with bluesy guitar and ragtime piano elevated by rich harmonies. The set was made up mostly of material from her T. Bone Burnett-produced third album. It finds the once Melissa Etheridge-style rocker assuming a more Americana musical personality. You can tell Presley still likes to rock though. She’s got her father’s swagger, especially when she lets loose. She was happiest banging on two floor toms during the last two songs of the set. She likely wasn’t able to join marching band in high school and may have missed her calling. Her joy brought the audience to its feet.
Her song introductions gave the show a “Storytellers” feel. She was quick to credit co-writers. She and her husband live in England now and she co-wrote much of the record with songwriter Ed Harcourt and Richard Hawley (Pulp). She touched on their work with “Storm of Nails” and the intimate “Weary,” respectively. She shared that her 21-year-old son had the lyrics of the album’s title track, which she’d written for him, tattooed on his chest. She later warned the crowd before breaking into an a Cappella intro on the last song that she wasn’t sure she could pull it off. She tore it up. Plenty of children of celebrities dream of music careers (look no further than that unfortunate VH1 competition series a few years back), but Presley is a natural singer. Her low, husky voice may not allow for scale climbing, but it’s strong, unique, and gutsy. She was on her game all night.
Throughout the set Lockwood went through the craziest array of custom designed guitars I’ve ever seen. There was a white resonator with a geometric cut-out pattern, a blue acoustic with a glitter-top, an orange hollow body with intricate line patterns, and a more subdued acoustic that’s pick guard matched its Prince-like headstock. Lockwood’s bluesy playing added another layer to Presley’s work as well. He tended to serve the song instead of relying on flash. His guitars alone displayed plenty of flash on their own.
Older songs were given new arrangements to fit the style of the show. “Idiot” - the Linda Perry co-pen from her angry pop-rock second album “Now What” - got a makeover that seemed more now and less glossy than the recorded version. Her first ever single “Lights Out” stuck closest to its bluesy pop beginnings, while “S.O.B.” didn’t lose anything in its revamped rootsier state.
Those and the encore of “I’ll Figure It Out” were the only older songs she sang (I was hoping for my favorite “Sinking In”). She briefly mentioned the charity work that’s got her playing smaller cities like Shelby - sponsoring children in third world countries. By the end of the encore half the animated crowd, who’d remained seated for the bulk of the concert, gathered at the front of the stage as Presley bent to shake hands while the crowd bopped to her version of Tom Petty’s “I Need To Know.”
As for the Don Gibson Theatre, it’s worth the trip. It looks like a theater from the `50s captured in time. The décor is a bit retro. I loved the speckled black stall doors in the bathroom and red and black tile work and the circular bar. The theater is a bit smaller than say, Neighborhood Theatre, but it’s less like a club and more like a classy seated concert hall with the noise of the bar separated from the stage. From the lights behind the stage to Presley’s dress, it all felt very vintage - not old and musty, but updated and modern with retro flair. The sound was occasionally a little boomy at first, but worlds better than my prior experience in the gym where I had to strain to figure out what song she was singing.
Shelby is only a short drive away. We weren’t the only out-of-towners for the show, which Presley said sold out in two days. We enjoyed vegan Thai at Joe's, a restaurant that specialized in Italian and Thai (what a combo!) within walking distance. The town seemed quiet, but there were a several open restaurants to choose from. My friend compared it to a smaller Asheville with its wine shop (which sponsored the concert) and yoga studio.
The next scheduled shows are ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro on Saturday and Edwin McCain's annual holiday show the day after Thanksgiving before the venue's concert schedule takes a break before picking back up in January. Make the trip. I’m sure they’d be happy to have you. For more on the theater click here.