Almost every major classic rock act is a group: the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin. Very few went it alone. That was Elton. He went from singer-songwriter with “Your Song” to arena and stadium attraction with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in 1973 and never looked back.
Now he’s making a case for his legacy with a 300 show tour to wrap it all up. And last night, at Madison Square Garden, where I first saw him 45 years ago, Elton was on fire. Three weeks from his 72nd birthday, Elton didn’t just command a sold out Garden, he held them in his hands.
Gone are the days of dancing on pianos in outlandish costumes. A gifted musician, Elton spends much of the evening showing his master of the craft of piano. He has nothing to prove anymore, no elbows hitting the keys or playing backwards. He is focused on now on remind us how this all started, and what makes him a real genius.
Yes, we heard “Crocodile Rock” and “The Bitch is Back” and “Bennie and the Jets”– the hits, the fun songs. But Elton also took a deep dive with “Indian Sunset,” a tour de force from the early 70s that he didn’t play very much until recently and shows off his dynamic composition skills. Same for “Levon,” a minor miracle when it appeared in 1971 with “Tiny Dancer” on “Madman Across the Water.” Last night “Levon,” who used to be quiet little guy, roared with life and showcased Elton’s seasoned, veteran band. (Most of them have been with him for four decades.)
Even though it’s a farewell tour, and the ages of the players are high, there is nothing sentimental going on here. Ray Cooper is still smashing percussion like a wild man. Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson play as if their lives depended on it. John Mahon, Kim Bullard, and Matt Bissonnette sound as if they were always with Elton from Day 1.
One of my great Elton John memories is when he told me that he was going to make a Leon Russell album. I asked why and he said he attributed a lot of his early music to Leon. We got a lot of that last night, the Elton-as-country-warbler, not to mention the pure joyous rock of “Burn Down the Mission” and the bluesy “Border Song,” which Aretha Franklin covered minutes after Elton released it and had her own hit. The set, which seems pretty set, covers all the bases, but all the right ones, even though we could easily take another hour without hesitation.
Some other highlights: “Daniel,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” and a really wild “Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” that includes a burning piano, lots of concert smoke, and a driving bass line. After the show I was able to ask Elton one question– how did “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding” become one number? He said, “I wrote them apart, but they just sounded better together.” They sure do.
All this leads up to the opening of “Rocketman,” the movie about Elton John’s life, which opens May 31st. The actual uncredited director of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher, made it, and it looks great. This is the year of Elton John, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
PS Great production design by David Furnish. The stage is a huge shellacked piano with a track in it so Elton and his piano can glide effortlessly around the set. Cool videos too!