We sometimes forget how remarkable the Internet is. I knew that my mother saw Elton John in concert at the Oakland Coliseum in 1975. Armed with this knowledge, I can not only pinpoint the date of that concert (October 19); I can also find pictures and even the setlist from the gig. So far as I can ascertain, it would’ve been a show to die for: Elton was touring his masterpiece Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy, at the height of his fame, in his vocal and instrumental prime.
But even though it wouldn’t be “your mother’s Elton John concert,” so to speak, I still leapt at the opportunity to see him and his Band in concert this past Saturday (11/23) at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, NE. My childhood was largely spent listening either to the likes of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or to traditional Celtic music; Elton was one of the first rock artists to enter my musical consciousness, via his Greatest Hits, Vol. 1. He even preceded the Beatles, although it was ultimately the Fab Four who kicked down the doors of rock n’ roll and changed my life.
So saying, getting the chance to hear “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Rocket Man” was of course a dream come true. Predictably, the setlist skewed heavily in favor of 1970-1975, with a few later hits and more recent album cuts thrown in for good measure. This particular tour found Elton supporting his latest album, The Diving Board, which I haven’t (yet) heard. But the two excerpts, “Home Again” and “Oceans Away,” were in keeping with his recent loping, R&B-flavored work: not quite as soaring as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (my favorite Elton John song, which he did indeed play), not quite as hard-driving as “The Bitch Is Back,” but well-crafted and ever melodic.
Elton’s voice has dropped about an octave since his glory days, and I was surprised at how many of his songs he chose to play in their original keys. His singing was generally stronger on the newer material (written to take into account his vocal shift), or when he wisely transposed down a few whole steps. But even on “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Tiny Dancer,” written by and for a much younger singer, by clipping the high notes and letting his bandmates cover the falsetto, he remained in good voice throughout.
Indeed, from the concert to the studio, this is how I would review the Elton John of 2013 in general: he takes songs down a few keys, he slows down “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” a bit, but he still deserves to have “Captain Fantastic” embossed on his red spangled Nehru jacket.
For me this was never clearer than at the very beginning of the show, as Elton and his band (who are great, by the way – Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone are as fabulous on drums and guitar, respectively, as ever) launched into the 12-minute epic that opens 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” with all the fiery energy of the original. My mother’s most vivid memory of the 1975 concert was of this song, performed in a mid-70s haze of pot smoke and dry ice fog. The connections that music forges, across the years and across generations, are truly timeless; and in that moment, I felt almost as if I was right there with her in Oakland. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Sir Elton.