Sir Elton Hercules John gave the royal musical treatment to a sold-out crowd of over 10,000 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin Thursday night. Weaving through most of his 30 albums, he played crowd pleasers as well as songs from his current release The Union (2010) treating the exuberant audience to extended interludes demonstrating a mix of showmanship and mastery of the ivories.
With a massive discography, Elton John (and his band) doesn’t need a warm-up act but he found a perfect one in 2Cellos, consisting of 20-somethings Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser from Yugoslavia who’s dueling cello video set to Micheal Jackson’s Smooth Criminal caught fire on Youtube last spring and landed them on John’s summer tour of England and now the U.S. The handsome pair bring a youthful energy to this classical instrument, (one I played as a child) and they delighted the Madison crowd with the high-energy Criminal as well as covers of U2’s With or Without You, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and ACDC’s Highway to Hell which wound up the crowd and served them on a platter to the Elton John Band.
For 2Cello’s last piece they were joined by Elton’s tour percussionist, which provided emphatic rock ‘n roll backing to the cellos which the two men had singing like guitars and brought the crowd to their feet. As the piece ended you could see the band flowing onto stage amid the cheers and only a few bars of Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting had played and there he was, Elton John ambling on stage and greeting the crowd. It’s the fastest arrival on stage for a headliner I’ve seen in a while.
For the next two and a half hours John kept the on-stage banter to a minimum and as he played classic numbers that all could sing along with, to various songs from The Union such as the ballad Gone to Shiloh in which he noted his collaboration on the album with singer songwriter Leon Russell which he called an early influence.
Also from The Union, was a pair of rock and roll numbers Grey Seal, and Levon which were a classic representation of John’s gospel and rock ‘n roll style, especially with Levon that featured heavy Hammond B-3-style flourishes.
Elton John’s music has not changed over the years but rather evolved. However it still holds true to its appeal and strength: great writing, melodic appeal, and delivered with impeccable phrasing. The bedrock of his music is his masterful piano playing which according to historical accounts he took to naturally from a very early age.
That mastery was evident Thursday night as the audience was treated to several long interludes where John dazzled with his playing; alternating between heavy firework-like chords to long trips up and down the keyboard like a fast-running stream.
The showman in Elton John, who wore an all black suit bespeckled with muted rhinestones and a navy blue button-down shirt, brought sound and light together in the synth-heavy long lead-in to Funeral for A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. As the dark tones and smoke cleared the song finished hard and fast with lights flashing, the back-up singers wailing, and the stage high video screen-like light board behind the band flashing a myriad of images.
Elton John took a few minutes to introduce his band which included backup singers Rose and Lisa Stone. Rose was a member of the psychedelic soul/funk band “Sly and the Family Stone” and just turned 67 the day before this performance. Her daughter Lisa showed her vocal range hitting some incredible high notes (not since I heard Mariah Carey) on Hey Ahab, a track from The Union.
Also present was original band mate and drummer Nigel Olsson as well as lead guitarist Davey Johnstone who has been with the band since playing on John’s 1971 album Madman Across the Water.
Elton did not forget to play the hits including Tiny Dancer early on, and then sprinkling throughout the show Rocket Man, Candle in the Wind (Norma Jean version), I Guess Why They Call It the Blues, Sad Songs (Say So Much), and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.
It was nice to hear the hits and I know that a live show is usually not the studio version of songs, but John did seem to rush through some of his songs, cutting out verses and interludes that evokes the nostalgia that sells tickets.What I didn’t know is that a botched surgery in 1987 permanently altered his voice and many of his pop hits will never sound the same again, which explains some of the key changes in certain songs.
What I did go to Elton John to see was his reputation for putting on a good show and he did not disappoint. I always regretted when I was 10 years old, hanging out in the lobby of the Madison Civic Center as a volunteer program distributor, chatting with the ushers during a concert by Bruce Hornsby; and I missed out on some great riffing on the piano that you can only get during live shows.
I didn’t miss out this time, especially the big finish. After a rousing rendition of I’m Still Standing; John stood up, one leg on the piano bench the other on top of the piano, posing triumphantly like he had conquered it all.
Indeed he has.
See the entire set list here from Elton John’s March 20 concert in Evansville, Indiana, which was unchanged Thursday night in Madison