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Oldies But Goldies: Two Elton John Reviews, 2011 and 2013

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(You don’t want to promise us a Greatest Hits set and then not provide the goods. That’s what Elton John did in 2011, before redeeming himself in 2013. With a new album out next Friday, let’s revisit -IL)

 

2011:

Elton John was bad last night in ways I have never seen a musician been bad before. It was a mixture of arrogance and hard work, and an inability to respect his craft for what it is.

Look at Elton this way:

:1. Piano guy session player

2. Serious artist who isn’t selling

3. Human Jukebox

4. Rich, drug addled human jukebox

5 Sober

6. Serious artist.

Now here is his mistake: he isn’t a serious artist IN THAT SENSE. Elton, prime Elton, when he really mattered Elton, was a purveyor of world conquering pop songs that topped the charts around the world. Should be enough, should be more than enough. It gave him legendary status and made him so rich he was spending $500,000 a week IN THE 1980S!!

But it wasn’t enough.

Elton wanted to be a SERIOUS ARTIST.

And started playing entire albums nobody remembered, liked or wanted to hear in concert. And crap albums like “Peachtree Road” (you know it’s a crap album when Rolling Stone only gives it 3 1/2 stars).

Followed by an album with Leon Russell which Elton is very proud of, and so is Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone, but everybody else forgot the moment they heard it.

The only thing that got me out to see Elton again was the promise of a greatets hit package.

And that’s what we got.

But man, it was like being mugged at Phoantom of the Opera.

Opening with “Funeral For A friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, though it was a mess of hard rhymic piano pounding, bad acoustics, and painfully over sung vocals, well, it was always purply and I settled down a little. But every song was the same. Drawn out, overwrought piffle, destroying song after overplayed song; everything overwhelmed by John’s slam handed piano and so far over the top vocals. Nothing survived the onslaught.

“Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”
“Levon’
“Tiny dancer”

Take no prisoners, barrel pounding, completely humourless diabolical versions. Worse is to come. A “Madman Across The Water” that lasts years and years and years. “Philadelphia Freedom”… how on earth could he fuck up this song. One of his greats. And why is he bowing after every song? Does he think he has to coax the cheers. Is he deaf? “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” -for some bizarre reason he asks us to sing the chorus, which nobody knows of coure.

And worse, a version of “Rocket Man” so bad that the guitar solo is a relief and around the 12 minute mark, I began wondering what would happen if it never ended. If hewas just gonna sit there forever screaming “Rocket Man” forever. First we would eat all the food in the arena, but then we would turn on each other…

Finally he calls out Leon Russel and the entire audience heads for the Food Court -except for me, I go all the way out the door and on to 7th avenue.

There is zero excuse for this shameful performance. Elton has no idea what he is doing. He is not a “serious” artist, that’s not why he is famous. He is, much more important and much much harder, a pop star. Tripped over over his own ego and press cuts, he pounds and pkays his songs to a long and blood curdelling death and loses himself in something he is far better than.

In its own unique way, the worst concert I’ve ever seen.

 

2013:

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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