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Elton John At Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, December 4th, 2013 Reviewed

“Philadelphia Freedom” (Larry Lachmann shined the light)

Just when it was time to give up on Elton John, he steadies the ship and comes roaring back.  In 2011, on a so called “Greatest Hits” package tour, he stopped the proceedings midway and brought out Leon Russell and performed the entire The Union album. The Union is a rotten album and it is was worse in person, it was also false advertising. You can’t claim you are playing a greatest Hits package and then sneak in your new album.

But it is an old Elton John trick and I’ve seen him do it before with Peachtree Road and also Captain Fantastic And The Dirt Brown Cowboy, which made three disgraceful John concerts in succession.

Last night John saved “Hey Ahab” from his The Union tour, and for one song, I didn’t wanna take him out and shoot him in his pudgy hands. For one song, it was a pretty good song. And so were other deep album tracks “The One” and “Ocean’s Away”, though not “Believe”, and if John was getting away with his obscure songs something special may have been going on during his 64th concert at MSG (banner raised pre-concert).

John has had a good year, The Diving Board was his best album since, wow, since Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and it was a sales fiasco (21,000 units moved) it was no less good for that. It was The Diving Board that brought me back to MSG after promising to never see him again, I called it a mixture of hard work and arrogance back in March, 2011, and it afflicted him last night as well, but the set was better paced, the band is as good as ever, with Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson still with Elton after all these years, and while John has never met a piano he can’t pound into the ground with those short anvil like fingers prodding every note into submission, he at least showed a semblance of restraint: “Rocket Man” cut from 15 minutes to six minutes for instance.

John seemed to be thinking hard and it led to superb transitions from “Ocean’s Away” the World War One remembrance of millions of young men who died in service of freedom to “Philadelphia Freedom”, perhaps the most perfect version I’ve ever heard of it, the result of their sacrifices. Both songs go on for too long, Elton always stretches his songs to the breaking point. As an album recording artist he has three masterpieces, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m The Piano Player, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and surrounding these glam smashes, many many hit singles. But Elton doesn’t see any differences between “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and “Bennie And TheJjets”. With the former, he can get away with drawing it out to a towering faux classical booming bombast and that’s fine, but he does the same thing to “Bennie And the Jets” and that isn’t. Plus, I hate the way he rolls his “sss” and I hate hate hate the way he sings “Levon likes his mon-aaaah” . 

The first three songs Wednesday night constituted Side one of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (though not it the same sequence as the album) and track four was another song of the album and only one of them didn’t work for me. And though I dislike Madman Across The Water intensely , if I have to hear “Tiny Dancer”, rather hear here  than elsewhere. “Mona Lisas And Madhatters”, far from a  favorite, is performed exceedingly well, and this despite being in the middle of an early concert lull steadied with a pounding “Philadelphia Freedom” to work his way back out and then not looking back after that till the end.

Pounding? Everything is pounding. Elton is like Tchaikovsky on steroids, he has all the subtlety of  an AK47, everything that gets in his way is shot down. The most delicious of songs, an otherwise great “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is too bombastic. I don’t think John can help himself; fronting a full swing full scale rock and roll band, he has no problem pounding the drums into submission. It is such hard work with all sense of fun or camp for that matter, long time gone, that it is a storm warning: why feel if you can over feel. rock nyc partner John Pasquale noted that it was very loud and he had a point.

The audience eats it up but if all you can get through in 165 is 24 songs (McCartney performed 32 in 150 minutes by comparison) you are running em up for too long and pop songs can’t withstand it, they become too self-important. It killed “Bennie” and it hurts stuff like “Sad Songs Say So Much”.

But with every caveat in the world, this is a return to form for John. There are two types of John fan (and neither likes anything he’s recorded in 30 years very much), if you believe the signpost that reads “SERIOUS ARTIST ENTER HERE”, than Wednesdays show was an immense relief. It was so good to hear the serious John piano man, watching his forceful hands fast and shattering the keys, on songs that we want to hear without paying the penalty of 85 minutes of bad songs. If you are, like me, a fan of John the human jukebox, you’d want a tighter, sharper set, you’d want him to lighten his toughness the way he does on “You’re Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock And Roll”.

Better than 2011? Oh trust me, he hasn’t sounded this good in decades. Good enough? Yeah, good enough.

Grade: B

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