Here’s Why You Should Always Go to the Show
One morning back in December, our editor-in-chief forwarded me an e-mail informing him that a major announcement from Elton John would be arriving in January. “What do you think it means?” he asked. It didn’t seem like a standard album and/or tour would warrant a six-week headstart, so we agreed that it was most likely going to be a revelation of retirement plans.
It seemed impossible, but that’s what transpired. Sure, Elton is 71 and has often talked about his desire to watch his children grow up (and you can hardly blame him) but we’re still talking about a guy who has seemed incapable of stopping. It was a pace established from the very beginning of his career, exploding before our very eyes with 11 albums released between 1969’s Empty Sky and 1976’s Blue Moves, two of which were double-LPs. True, he wasn’t recording very often anymore, but it seemed like he was always on the road somewhere around the world.
And then it hit me: In all this time, I had never seen Elton John perform.
I’d say I’m a casual Elton John fan. As with anybody who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his hits were an integral part of my musical upbringing. In later years I picked up those classic early albums and realized there was much more to him than just what was on the radio. But by that point, his newer material didn’t do much for me. I probably liked the Reg Strikes Back and Sleeping With the Past singles more than most people, and every once in a while, he’d give you something like “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore” that stands up against his best work - even if it still didn’t make up for, say, “Healing Hands.”
Despite his reputation as an excellent live performer, the fear of being sold too many new songs at the expense of his classics didn’t justify the price of a stadium show, especially as his vocal range dropped as he aged. The closest I had come was standing outside Chicago’s Wrigley Field and listening during his 2009 tour with Billy Joel.
Then I thought of something a good friend likes to say: Always go to the show.
It’s a line that has never needed an explanation with me. There have been too many times when I passed up a chance to see an act, figure I would see them next time, only to have either the band break up, or a key member depart or pass away before they had the chance.
So when we got the e-mail about Elton John, I had just booked a vacation to Las Vegas, where his Million Dollar Piano production has been in residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace since 2011. I checked the dates he was going to be performing and, as it turned out, he was beginning a weekend of shows on my last night in town (as it turned out, it was the week after he got beads thrown in his face and the week before he walked offstage when someone kept touching his piano – my timing is impeccable). I picked up a ticket for the front row of the second mezzanine, dead center.
I got to my seat just long enough to take a picture of my view and send it out to family and social media before the lights dimmed. The band came out and vamped on the opening riff to “The Bitch Is Back,” and then the star walked onstage, wearing a sequined cape that took two people to remove and – not for the last time that night – basking in the applause. The next hour and 45 minutes was one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve been to in a long time.
The Million Dollar Piano focused almost entirely on his early catalog (only three of the 17 songs performed -- “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “I’m Still Standing” and the closer, “Circle of Life,” -- came after 1975). No, his voice isn’t nearly as malleable as it was – percussionist John Mahon took care of the falsetto notes and Elton changed melodies or rephrased lines to fit his range. But he also didn’t miss any notes, either, and his deeper, richer tones worked to great effect on the ballads, creating stunning interpretations of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Even though the unchanging set list and integration of video into the no-expenses-spared production left virtually no room for spontaneity (unless some jackass throws a necklace at him, of course), that doesn’t mean the performance felt rote. His two-fisted piano playing remains excellent, further proof that he is the spiritual love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Aretha Franklin. And his band, which contained three members – guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper – who have been with him for decades, were as tight as versatile as could be, especially on the instrumental blowout during the coda of “Levon.”
His banter – talking about his partnership with Bernie Taupin before “Your Song” and “Indian Sunset” or remembering the post-9/11 Concert for New York City when Introducing “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – came off as warm and engaging, no matter how many times he’s probably said those words.
It was a reminder that Elton John earned his fame by winning over fans one at a time -- working harder, releasing more albums, playing more shows, wearing flashier and more outrageous outfits than his peers. That desire to please doesn’t go away, even with the end in sight and a level of financial security that would take decades of bad investments to squander.
In the last year of his career, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio was asked why, with his skills clearly in decline, he still played so hard. His answer: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best.”
That night, I was (comparatively) that kid, seeing Elton John for the first time, and possibly the last, too. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the high-energy, probably drug-aided days of 11-17-70, Dodger Stadium in 1975 or the Donald Duck show in Central Park. He gave the audience his best possible show that night, adapting it to suit who is today, not who he once was.
I have no doubt that the others who have announced farewell tours so far in 2018 -- Ozzy Osbourne, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Paul Simon – have similar pride in their approaches to their craft to deliver the best concert they can. That’s all we can ask of our heroes at this stage in the game. With the summer tour calendar filling up, there are probably some names whom you’ve always put off seeing, as I had done with Elton. But don’t wait until their retirement tour to buy a ticket. Follow my friend’s advice and always go to the show.