The King lived again in October as the Philadelphia Pops presented the World Premiere of “Elvis: The King’s Songbook” at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Featured artists Dave Bennett and his Quartet, along with vocalist Allison Blackwell, had the crowd singing and dancing along with their unique interpretations of classic Elvis tunes backed by orchestration performed by the superb Philly Pops’ musicians.
When I learned about a month ago that one of my favorite musicians, Dave Bennett, would be performing an evening of Elvis tunes in conjunction with the Philadelphia Pops (and a “world premiere” performance to boot), I thought to myself, “I have to go see this show!” The familiar adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” came true in this instance as I checked my calendar and saw that I’d be returning from a conference in south Florida on the Sunday of the final concert, so I simply flew to Philadelphia for two nights before heading home. This detour afforded me the opportunity not only to catch the marvelous concert but also to explore historic Philadelphia for a couple of days.
I chose to stay at the Hyatt at the Bellevue, located only a block or so down Broad Street from the Kimmel Center so I was able to walk to the concert. I arrived a little before 6:00 p.m. in order to hear the pre-concert lobby conversation with R. J. McKay, a news anchor with a Philadelphia CBS affiliate. The 45-minute talk provided the perfect springboard for the concert as McKay interspersed his interesting comments on Elvis’ musical progression with recordings of many Elvis tunes and excerpts from his interview with Philly Pops Music Director Michael Krajewski.
The Kimmel Center is a spacious, sunlit structure completed in 2001, and it houses three separate concert venues. The Pops concert took place in the Verizon Hall, a space glowing with polished wood and multi-tiered balconies encircling the stage. The orchestra opened with a medley of Elvis tunes, and on the second tune, “Burning Love,” Dave Bennett took the stage with a shiny black 50s-styled electric guitar which he played with enthusiasm. Dave and the Pops moved seamlessly into a medley of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” followed by “Promised Land,” which Dave introduced as having more words than should be legal. Philadelphia native Allison Blackwell joined Dave on stage for the next pieces, “The Wonder of You” and “Always on My Mind.” At some point Dave picked up his blinged out clarinet (gold keys and a halo of twinkling cubic zirconium stones outlining the bell) and wowed the crowd with his impressive speed and range. I first heard Dave as a clarinetist so, while he sparkles on piano, guitar, and vocals, I admit to feeling an extra thrill whenever he plays it. His clarinet interpretation of “How Great Thou Art” in the second half proved his mastery of the instrument with rich, mellow low tones contrasting with higher warp-speed arpeggios. But back to the first half of the concert, where Dave and Allison performed familiar tunes “Devil in Disguise,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Trouble.” Allison, a Philadelphia native who performs on Broadway (The Lion King, Porgy and Bess), entranced the audience with her vocal range, volume, and sassy style on some of the faster numbers.
After intermission, the orchestra opened with a medley of “Surrender/It’s Now or Never” which showcased the Pops instrumentalists’ talents. Dave and Allison delved deep into Elvis’ repertoire with “C.C. Rider,” “Suspicious Minds,” “If I Can Dream,” and “American Triology Fantasy,” an emotionally stirring combination of Dixie, All My Trials, and Battle Hymn of the Republic. Dave brought down the house, and managed to shed his suit jacket and tie, on the rousing medley featuring “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” Dave’s unorthodox piano playing, after the manner of Jerry Lee Lewis, had the audience on its feet laughing, clapping, and singing along. Dave and Allison closed out the program with a medley of “Fools Rush In/Can’t Help Falling in Love” and returned to the stage after a standing ovation for an lively encore of “Johnny B. Goode.”
This program was a huge success, as evidenced by the 20-something couple sitting next to me who said they’d not been to a Pops concert before but who were wildly enjoying this performance as evidenced by their clapping and shout-outs. After the concert Dave met fans in the lobby to sign autographs and pose for photos, and while waiting I happened to talk to Philly Pops’ Sr. Program Director Jeth Mills (whom I discovered had previously worked for the Des Moines Symphony), who graciously took a photo of me and Dave. I also snagged a photo of the cool pink cadillac parked in front of the Kimmel Center to promote this program. What can I say but “Thank you very much” to the fine musicians of the Philly Pops and the featured artists for providing this memorable interpretation of the King’s Songbook.
For more information on the Philadephia Pops’ upcoming conerts, visit phillypops.com. Dave Bennett’s schedule is located at davebennett.com, and tweet to Allison Blackwell at @ABlackwellNYC.