Don't Shoot Him, He's Only Elton John

Anaheim, CA; April 19, 2008

by Kenny S. McGuane

Disclaimer: I adore Elton John. I mean, really love him. Growing up, the music of Elton John was shoved down my throat the same way some children are force-fed the Bible. One of my earliest childhood memories is being in my bed, supposed to be napping, while my mother played Blue Moves and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player brain-scramblingly loud on the record player. It always seemed to me, and still does, that Elton John’s music was unusually and distinctively sophisticated for pop; there’s really nothing else like it out there. Between Elton’s gift for composition, Bernie Taupin’s timeless lyrics, the strength of the Elton John Band and Paul Buckmaster’s highly intricate orchestration, the records made between 1970 and 1976 are some of the best of the era. Indeed, the music of Elton John defined seventies rock music and dominated a good portion of the charts for most of the decade.

Elton John and his band played one of their first Southern California shows in over three years last Saturday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The Rocket Man Tour is a welcomed string of dates for fans who have not been able to make it to Vegas to see the Red Piano Show at Caesar’s Palace, which Elton has been doing weekly for several years (while I haven’t seen the show myself, it’s supposed to be outstanding). The Honda Center seats roughly 18,000 people, and I’d say the place was about 85% full on Saturday. Ticket prices ranged anywhere between $75 and infinity. You get your money’s worth: they played for over two and a half hours.

For an artist with so many beloved songs, it’s impossible for him to cover everything. But Saturday night’s set list was broad, indeed. Naturally, Elton opened with “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and from there went straight into “The Bitch Is Back.” Then, the show took a favorable turn when Elton played “Madman Across The Water” and “Holiday Inn,” two non-single tracks off of 1971’s Madman Across the Water. It seems the older he gets, the more Elton enjoys playing his more obscure songs -- often songs that hold up just as well as his singles; his earliest records rarely included mindless filler.

Classics from Elton’s repertoire, including “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” “Honkey Cat,” “Believe” and “Candle In The Wind” among numerous others, were all perfectly executed, per usual. Another magnificently arranged, non-charting track was the concert highlight “All The Girls Love Alice.” This song sounds unbelievable live and it’s one of the better tracks from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Thankfully, he didn’t touch any material from The Lion King.

There were two encores and prior to the first one, Elton came out and signed at least forty autographs for those lucky enough to be touching the stage -- this speaks to Elton John’s professionalism and gratitude for all the people who hold him and his music so close to their hearts. This sort of thing is also a welcomed contrast to his reputation and persona as a tantrum-throwing diva. The night ended with the standard show-closer “Your Song,” which of course was dedicated to everyone in the audience.

There are two undesirable features of the modern-day Elton John concert. The first is excessive jamming. This could be controlled, used more sparingly and would allow for Elton to cover more songs. The second is Elton’s newer vocal style and diction. His sharp, staccato-like, cut-off of words is annoying, and I’m not sure when or why it started. His voice, technically, is stronger these days. Throat surgery in the late eighties left him without his trademark falsetto, which is beyond his control. But it’s not the lack of falsetto I am referring to; it’s the way he sings the words, the way he sounds them out. But, this is just one guy’s opinion and these things barely matter because the overall presentation is brilliant. Actually, that’s not entirely true; the overall presentation is brilliant with the exception of the excruciatingly cheesed-out computer graphics displayed behind the band for the entire show, which were annoying, embarrassing and kind of insulting. Whoever’s responsible for that needs to be fired. It’s Elton John for God’s sake: he doesn’t need graphics to bring his songs to life… his band’s got a handle on that.

Elton John has buckets of money. It would be inaccurate to say he has more money than he knows what to do with because it’s well-known that he knows how to spend his money. But making money is something Elton John will never have to worry about. He could stop touring if he wanted to – think of the royalties he makes on his songs alone. The sixty-year-old Elton John tours because he wants to, because he needs to. This comes across in his playing, his energy and his appreciation for his audience. Elton John has always been, first and foremost, an entertainer. Saturday night’s show was fantastic, something everyone could admire and respect, even those not religiously dedicated to the music of Elton John. I’ve seen him six times now and somehow he just keeps getting better and better.

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