There was news recently of Elton’s upcoming autumn release The Diving Board. The PR machine has already begun its job, proclaiming this to be the “most exciting” record Elton has done in years!! Hell, even Captain Fantastic himself has, so far, done nothing to contradict those promises, despite the semi-silly fact that his last four records have also made similar assurances of quality.
What caught my eye though, with regards to this album, is the style in which John recorded it: piano, bass, and drums. That’s it. A proper trio once more, which Elton has not participated in since the early, early 1970s. When Elton first appeared in America at the legendary Troubadour club, it was just he, Nigel Olsson, and Dee Murray bringing the house down. Surely a return to that style can only be a good thing?
Fortunately, there is one album in Elton’s by now-expansive catalogue that demonstrates the promise set forth by The Diving Board: the subject of this review 11-17-70. Recorded at the A&R studios in New York, this performance was massively bootlegged, prompting the label to go ahead and release it officially. Unfortunately, this added to the glut of Elton product on the market – if memory serves, he had four records on the chart at roughly the same time. Thus the album fell into obscurity.
Which is a damn shame, because there is no live record to Elton John’s name that captures the energy and ferocity of his trio performances. These are not the classic hits that make the rounds on the live tour in 2012; these are deep album cuts and covers that don’t receive radio play at all anymore. Given that there is no recording of John’s first American performances, this album serves as the closest link we have to what it was like to see Elton John for the first time.
The most striking aspect of 11-17-70 is just how energetic it is. Perhaps these ears have become accustomed to the deliberate pacing of a current day Elton John concert, but the difference is night and day. It is very difficult to picture 60-year-old Elton tackling an 18-minute medley of “Burn Down The Mission,” “Get Back,” and “My Baby Left Me.” Youth and vigor have been replaced by experience and professionalism, but there is a widespread feeling amongst the John fan-base that if Elton can recapture even just a little bit of his early career magic, the story will have come full circle.
Dee Murray never receives his proper due as being one of the best bassists of his time; to listen to him play is a revelation. The next time you play an early Elton John record, pay attention to nothing else but Murray. The way he supports the melody and the speed at which he plays puts others to shame. Listen to the breakdown during “Burn Down The Mission” – it’s frenetic, powerful and unique.
The middle portion of 11-17-70 contains three songs that demonstrate just how versatile this trio was. “Honky Tonk Women” gets transformed from a bluesy Stones classic into a shimmying R&B jam. “Sixty Years On” was a string-laden, bordering on pretentious track contained on Elton’s self titled record but receives a thunderous treatment live. “Can I Put You On,” remains one of the forgotten John compositions, but its outstanding outro captures the feelings of 1960s-era rock and deserves to be remembered more fondly.
But of course, the star of the show is undeniably Elton. His vocals retain their early might, which was slowly eroded over time due to drugs and nonstop touring. The piano playing is compelling. With Murray and Olsson holding down the foundation, it’s up to John to fill in the rest, and boy, does he ever pull it off. There are elements of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to be sure, but Elton always manages to take bits and pieces from the piano men who proceeded him and make it straight up rock and roll.
It’s a shame that I never got around to reviewing this record years ago during our Elton John retrospective month. Its status most resembles that of a cult classic, but any fan of John and the piano would do well to pick this up at your earliest convenience. The Diving Board doesn’t have a great chance of having the same quality as 11-17-70, but I all I am hoping for is it reminds us of it.