Elton John is one of those British exports that we in the states took very closely to heart. His phenomenal success here echoed globally – but there was always something that seemed so American about him. Lyrics and themes from Bernie Taupin– songs about Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood, Philadelphia, along with frequent inclusion of honky-tonk piano and 50’s pop rock sensibility spoke to us. He had seven consecutive number one albums in the US. The sprawling Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973) is his rich and varied masterpiece while Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) is the most musically adventurous and so became a long lasting personal favorite. I grew up during his formative decade and been a dedicated fan of his melodic, emotive work. In fact one major reason I gave up playing the piano was due to having made the effort to learn “Funeral for a Friend” on piano, with sheet music – taking six weeks to master it – then finding out it was originally written and recorded in a day!
Due to the large number of progressive rock concerts I attended in those days, I never did get around to seeing Elton John perform live, despite his reputation for staging outrageous, exciting rock concerts. But last night, on October 2, 2014, we did see Elton John at our local arena in San Jose, in a tour a local ad claimed would include “All His Hits.” There was truth in that advertising.
Elton’s stellar band entered to the tolling church bell that begins “Funeral for a Friend” and went on to play the rest of what was side one of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album – continuing on during the show to play “Grey Seal”, “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and the title track when we were asked to sing along during the chorus. The rest of the set list was similarly filled out with hits from his back catalog, along with only a couple of new tracks – a very pretty “Oceans Away” and also “Home Again” from The Diving Board (2013). The show ended with “Circle of Life” which Elton introduced after exclaiming how his children have so enriched his life. Only complaint on the set list from this fan was the focus on only “hits” and possibly therefore lack of any tracks from Captain Fantastic. Otherwise a nice blend of mostly older selections played with precision and energy.
Elton sings in a lower register these days, but has adapted the songs by half notes, keys, octaves to suit his range. His falsetto is completely gone, making vocal delivery more forced and gravelly, yet able to be tuneful and melodic. Elton still likes to rock these songs out – even “Your Song” concludes with the band swelling it’s backing sound to full volume. Surprising in a way he does not back them down more frequently, and sing in a more quiet way for some of the ballads. He kept stories short last night – mentioning Bernie, his kids, and his appreciation to fans who have kept him in the business for so long, adding that he loves performing now more than ever before.
Elton played all the songs last night from behind his beautiful Yamaha grand piano. His skills on the instrument are well known, and were highlighted during several interludes and codas when he executed runs that only the most dexterous trained hands could accomplish. This is a man who can play one chord, stand up, and smile as everyone shouts “Bennie!” After each song, Elton rises from his bench to enjoy the audience reaction, and stoke more, shaking his fists in the air and making the “ohhh” face! It’s hard not to miss the younger, bawdy performer with the huge glasses, feather boas and costumes, but then we’ve all grown up a bit too. At this stage, the performances are still stellar, and befitting his position as one of the most successful pop stars of our time.