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Various Artists: High Rollers from Las Vegas

Vegas is back, baby. After a persistent losing streak that saw it forfeiting visitors to other neon-lit Meccas, Sin City is brighter, hotter and busier than ever. For those of us who grew up with images of the Strip as depicted in the Rat Pack romp Ocean’s 11, Vegas has been rendered all but unrecognizable. Gone are the smoky gambling dens of old, replaced by buff, polished behemoths like the Bellagio, the new $2.7 billion Wynn and ersatz replicas of everything from the Manhattan skyline to the Egyptian pyramids. Sadly, these mammoth excesses have also ushered in a slickly overproduced style of entertainment that favors white tigers, Cirque du Soleil gymnastics and the bland warbling of Celine Dion over the hard-swingin’, booze-fueled stage shows that, once upon a time, made a ringside table at the Sands or Sahara seem the height of mink-lined sophistication. If it’s those good ol’ days of Vegas-style showmanship you’re hankering for, this assemblage of centennial discs can, with certain reservations, be just the ticket. Though the quality of the recordings and performances is consistently strong across the series, the relative value of each disc varies enormously. In rank order, ascending from snake eyes to jackpot, here’s the payout:

Given Wayne Newton’s four-decade Vegas dominance, the title Mr. Las Vegas! is accurate enough. Sadly, the disc’s content consists almost entirely of studio recordings, all but three of which are already easily available on other Newton compilations (particularly his entry in Capitol’s 1999 Wild, Cool & Swingin’ series). There are two bonus live tracks-a satiny “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” and a rather toothless “Mack the Knife”-both recorded at Hollywood’s Crescendo in ’64, that do at least provide a wee sense of Newton’s once-vibrant stage appeal.

The 13 high rollers on High Rollers! From Las Vegas (ranging from Sinatra to Garland) may have been Vegas headliners, but the tracks all hail from Capitol’s studios at Sunset and Vine. Again, apart from Peggy Lee’s scintillating treatment of “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” there’s nothing here that hasn’t surfaced elsewhere on Capitol compilations and artist-specific discs.

Nancy Wilson’s in top form throughout Live From Las Vegas, a 1968 date at the Sands, and it’s terrific listening to Wilson at the point in her multivaried career when she was just beginning the transformation from a silk-smooth standards bearer to a grittier soul singer. But, there’s nothing really new here for Wilson fans; this 14-track concert was reissued in its entirety three years ago as part of the four-disc The Essence of Nancy Wilson set.

Bobby Darin’s Vegas compilation is primo Darin, capturing him at his cocky best in 1963 at the Flamingo. Hints of the emerging folk singer are evidenced by first-rate renditions of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore),” “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “I’m on My Way Great God.” The emphasis, though, is on the hits (“Mack the Knife,” natch) and the Sinatra-esque standards Darin loved best. As with the Wilson disc, though, we’ve heard it all before; this 14-track set was released five years ago by Collector’s Choice under the title The Curtain Falls.

The multiartist Live From Las Vegas compilation is a curious assortment made up mostly of previously released live tracks (including, disappointingly, several culled from other volumes in this series). It redeems itself with such fresh treats as Judy Garland breezing through “Lucky Day” at the Frontier, Stan Kenton serving up a sizzling “It’s All Right With Me” at the Tropicana and the Buddy Rich Big Band blowin’ the roof off Caesar’s Palace with Henry Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky.” Consider each the equivalent of a $1,000 chip.

If you’re interested in Dean Martin’s musicality, go elsewhere. On his Live From Las Vegas disc, he manages to deliver a grand total of one tune straight (the lackluster “Welcome to My World”), without twisted lyrics or pauses for general buffoonery. But if you want to understand why Dino’s faux drunk shtick-actually fueled more by irrepressible joie de vivre than by bourbon-remained a Vegas favorite for decades, you’d be hard-pressed to find better proof than this 17-track exercise in sophomoric shenanigans, captured during a late, late show (hence the excess of blue material) at the Sands in April ’67.

Though it doesn’t come close to topping Ol’ Blue Eyes ’66 session at the Sands with Count Basie (under the ring-a-ding-ding direction of Quincy Jones), Sinatra’s Live From Las Vegas is a never-before-released, 19-track concert from two decades later, recorded in December ’86 at the Golden Nugget. Sinatra remains impressively robust (especially considering he’d undergone emergency surgery just a month earlier) and in remarkable good, if deteriorating, voice.

As pull-all-the-stops Vegas razzmatazz goes, it remains impossible to top the freewheeling antics of Louis Prima, then-wife Keely Smith and saxophonist pal Sam Butera. Justly billed as “the wildest act” in town, the Prima-Smith-Butera triumvirate was a powder keg of indefatigable pizzazz. Their Live From Las Vegas collection is 19 tracks, direct from the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara, including 13 kickass numbers that have never been previously released. Best among the magical baker’s dozen: Smith’s red-hot rendition of the deliciously cheeky “Nothing Can Replace a Man” and Butera’s gravel-and-cement vocal on the saucy “Pack Your Clothes.”

Originally Published