In the sanitized post-millennial Vegas where Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil rule supreme, the hard-swinging Sin City of smoke, sleaze, sharkskin and mink stoles (back when the town’s most popular Canuck was Canadian Club) has all but disappeared. Which makes this five-disc salute to the headliner who, more than any other, defined that delectably debauched burg’s intoxicating blend of bravado, hedonism and uncensored high spirits all the more valuable.
As any Sinatra fan worth his Jack Daniels knows, though his appearances along the Strip spanned nearly a half-century, only one Vegas album—1966’s Sinatra at the Sands—was ever released commercially during his lifetime. Casual perusal of this slickly packaged box set’s track listing might easily lead you to believe that that seminal, mid-’60s platter, generally accepted as one of the all-time greatest live recordings, is the centerpiece of this collection. Yes, the set’s second disc does comprise material from those landmark Sands dates that teamed Sinatra with Count Basie and His Orchestra, arranged and conducted by an überhip up-and-comer named Quincy Jones. And yes, a dozen of the songs are the same. But this shorter assemblage (missing “One for My Baby,” “Where or When” and “Angel Eyes,” but adding a slam-bang “Luck Be a Lady”) is made up entirely of previously unreleased material. As such, it remains pricelessly consistent with the other rarities included here. The opening disc, from a November 1961 Sands date overseen by then-Reprise A&R man Neil Hefti and intended for a live album that was subsequently scuttled, easily rivals the ’66 sessions in greatness. This is Sinatra at the very top of his game. He owns Reprise, he owns a piece of the Sands, and the world is his high-flying playground.
Discs three and four, moving the action forward two decades with comparatively subdued 1980s dates from Caesars Palace (complete with some good-natured heckling from Dean Martin and a regrettably creaky reunion with daughter Nancy on “Somethin’ Stupid”) and the Golden Nugget are less thrilling, but find Sinatra as polished as ever, and in surprisingly good voice. Perhaps the biggest treasure is the fifth disc, a DVD that delivers a complete 1978 show from Caesars Palace, recorded in front of a rather odd but suitably exhilarated audience that includes delegates from a liquor industry convention, a Roman Catholic priest and Orson Welles. By his own admission, the notoriously moody Sinatra is in a great mood, kibitzing with the crowd and handling everything from the yearning tenderness of Kander and Ebb’s “Maybe This Time” to the ring-a-ding-ding oomph of “My Kind of Town” with the effortless ease of a guy who knows that this town spins on his axis.