Elton John Cynthia Woods Pavilion May 1, 2015
What constitutes a "force of nature"? Hurricanes, droughts, torrential downpours? How about a bespectacled Brit in a bedazzled purple suit? Last Friday night, a 66-year old Elton John rolled in like thunder and reigned over a packed Cynthia Woods Pavilion, displaying why he has dominated pop music for the better half of a century. In a both literal and figurative fashion that only Sir Elton could deliver, the Pavilion was drenched for almost three hours in one Billboard chart-topper after another.
Walking into an Elton John show in 2015, it's best to have zero expectations. As with many of his contemporaries, John's discography provides endless combinations of songs that could be featured, and any hope to hear all the fan favorites is a gamble. Not to mention, there is the question of the voice: how will it sound? The benefit of having zero expectations prevents any disappointment. However, in the case of Friday night, that theory was a moot point. Any expectations this crowd carried were shattered and exceeded with ease.
Donning an iridescent purple and green suit complete with crystals and a large orange "E J" on his back, John opened the show with a commanding "Funeral for a Friend" into "Love Lies Bleeding," setting the tone for the night — powerful, piano-driven hits. Immediately the audience was reminded: Elton John, first and foremost, is a musician. His piano skills are ridiculous. In those first moments, with all the power and pageantry and sparkle, John was reminiscent of Liberace (but with a far, far better playlist).
The question of "the voice" was also immediately answered. Most artists have tricks to cover up the vocal deficiencies granted by time: singing in a lower register or creating more audience participation moments, to name a couple. John is no different, quite dramatically altering the cadence in his songs. "Love Lies Bleeding" has never sounded so staccato, while the next song, "Bennie and the Jets," had the singer practically scatting. Even so, these new rhythms in the songs didn't leave any empty space. On the contrary, his stellar piano skills and ragtime sensibilities were the focal point.
If Elton John is a musician first, tied for second are singer and performer. It's impossible to say which is his better talent. During "Candle in the Wind," John's voice sounded strong and rich. His innate ability to pull in the audience with his performance has only strengthened with time. He is a vessel for these lyrics, and transfers them into the world with considerable passion. "All the Girls Love Alice" followed, which was a musical highlight of the show. Only four songs in, Elton was playing as if it was the last encore of his last show of his last farewell tour ever. He took the audience to CHURCH.
After "Alice" finished, the audience was treated to a seven-song string of some of the most famous music the modern world has ever heard. During a beautiful rendition of "Levon," Baby Boomers remembered their social media pages and took videos for their timelines. This was followed by the immortal "Tiny Dancer," which produced collective goosebumps. Everyone in the crowd, regardless of age, sang every word. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous did for this song what Wayne's World did for Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," allowing generation after generation to feel a deep, personal connection with this classic.
John followed with "Believe," where he shared a story about his musical relationship with longtime collaborator (and lyrical genius) Bernie Taupin. Coincidence or not, his voice sounded the best during this and other songs he cited as his favorites. This was followed by a lovely "Daniel," and a rousing "Philadelphia Freedom."
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During the majority of the set, the band's backdrop was a relatively simple LED screen displaying relatively simple images. The next song, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," mixed it up and showed a visual timeline of Elton's life as he played. Telling the story of his accomplishments, album art led into The Lion King and AIDA, among many other professional highlights. The screen ended on a large wedding cake with two men atop, and paused here for more than a few moments. This was no accident. He ended the Billboard bonanza with a surreal "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)," which included a fantastic piano solo.
"Hey Ahab" was followed by "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," which again took the audience to church. "Your Song," one of the best love songs ever penned, created a lasting moment in the night, tapping into the emotion of the crowd. People cried. Lovers kissed. "Burn Down the Mission," "Holiday Inn," "Sad Songs (Say So Much)," and "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" played before John spoke to the audience to acknowledge how lucky he is. He thanked America, where he has been for 46 years, for his opportunities, specifically his husband/partner of 21 years.
Again, no accident here: John was taking subtle opportunities to educate Texas on the meaning of love. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" followed, before a fun mini-set of "The Bitch is Back," "I'm Still Standing," "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n Roll)," and "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." After "Saturday," John quickly stood up, waved, and exited the stage.
Just moments later, John returned to his piano stand one last time. As the uncanny opening notes of "Crocodile Rock" played, the audience roared with delight. Though he didn't sing any of the high notes, he didn't need to. The audience supplied every bit of vocal that was needed as Elton banged on his keys and brought down the house like a thunderstorm. On Friday night, the bitch certainly was back. The question is, did he ever really leave?
Personal Bias: Fuck Hozier, ELTON JOHN took it to church. I am not sure I have ever been to a show that felt so much like listening to a classic chapter of the American Songbook. And PS: Bernie Taupin wrote "Your Song" when he was just 18 years old? I'm not sure most full-fledged "adults" understand love in such an organic way.
The Crowd: Pod people and Stepford Wives.
Overheard In the Crowd: A mother and daughter waiting together in the food line discussed Elton John's sexuality through the years. The daughter, no more than 18, seemed completely shocked that John was ever married to a woman. It's pretty great that these kids are growing up with less hang-ups about other peoples' lives. It was also clear that artists like Elton John are helping Americans feel more comfortable with what used to be called "alternative lifestyles." He makes it clear that love is not an alternative lifestyle.
Random Notebook Dump: The best people at this show were the people who perpetually fist-pumped and almost head-banged. It was refreshing to see these crispy suburbanites let loose.
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