With the 'Trident Studios' era over, Elton had crossed the great divide of the Channel and pitched up in a chateau in France to continue his spiral upwards towards world domination. Kind of a reverse leaping of the Maginot Line. What came west across that front wasn't quiet. Honky Chateau was in the can, the first of the band albums. And number ones. A complete change from Madman, the yin and yang you could say. Davey having got the gig due his insightful and broad range he stamped over that album. The show at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst not intended as such, was a wave Goodbye and a wave hello to both side of the divide. Elton sitting in the middle of all this, not since Holy Moses had someone stood between such vast scape's.
The 1971 concert at the same venue with a session orchestra under Buckmaster's control had been a success by all accounts, but as such little evidence exists of it, precise details are sketchy. This 1972 edition featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It seems though there was some tension between Buckmaster and the orchestra, the arranger/conductor reporting that they (orchestra) were difficult to work with. Incredibly surprising that, they being such professional musicians. Not only that, in September 1969 they premiered along with Deep Purple the concerto for group and orchestra under the baton of Sir Malcolm Arnold. An incredible piece of work, truly groundbreaking in it's day and was almost the starting gun for such live works that followed. So they had plenty of experience of hooking up with the rock fraternity.
The show was essentially divided into two sections, the great divide. The first part featured Elton, Nigel, Dee and on his debut, Davey. Elton dressed in a sparkly purple top, the band in the typical early 70's setup of all being in a line across the stage. The empty chairs of the orchestra adding a strange arty setting of an audience sound being present but visually being absent. Not intended, but in hindsight looks as if it were staged that way. The only songs we have from that part of the set are the ones released on the 60th birthday DVD a few years back on the bonus discs.
Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatter's
The 3 songs stick faithfully to the basic studio versions, as would be the theme of the night. Tight, polished as if they had being doing them for years. But this was their first appearance too, only having being recorded weeks earlier. Elton's piano has a gorgeous sound, a harsh undertone with a smooth layer of warmth on top. Eton's voice at this stage was in it's groove. It being able to for see what Elton wanted and phrased each line immaculately. It bounces around like a controlled bungee rope. Davey's plucks his mandolin with sharp stabs. Dee's bass is expertly handled, his clever use of the volume controls are simple but essential. Moving in and out, up and down as the shade of the song dictated. Mona Lisa's being clear example here. His bass notes at the start of Rocket Man are simple, iconic but in a few chords have become a sonic standard of the highest quality and everlasting legacy. Nigel's big drum sound, the concert toms filling the air like the timpani perched up behind him. His footwork on Honky Cat is extraordinary, his holding and releasing of notes in time with Elton's piano crucial in welding and flowing of the whole thing together. Wonderfully recorded, all instruments clear and mixed perfectly. No compromise on sond, we hear what we should hear. And want to hear.
The we had a strange situation when Nigel and Dee were then lifted offstage, their equipment removed. They were sent to the stands, not with a red card but because of the nature of it being an orchestra show and Buckmaster wanting to conduct it as it he arranged it, in other word's all the parts from rhythm section out, they had to sidestep for this one. Elton changing into a white fluffy cuffed number, he truly looking like the concerto maestro in his attire. To accompany him and the RPO are essentially Blue Mink. Ray Cooper on percussion, Barry Morgan on drums, Herbie Flowers on bass and Alan Parker on guitar. Madeline Bell and her distinctive voice shining through joined Nigel and Dee in the rest of the singers booth alongside amongst other Leslie Duncan. Barry Desouza (drums)and Chris Laurence (acoustic bass) adding an extra rhythm section for a heavier backbeat. All these people onstage representing the cream of the Trident years, apart of course from the missing Caleb Quaye, Roger Pope and their fellow Hookfoot luminaries. But the presence of Davey was now the way of the future, he played on Madman but he was now part of the setup and his arrival would herald a change in direction. And fortunes. Him being onstage the link across the great divide.
The following are the only songs from that set available on the bootleg CD, Philharmoica Freedom.
Take Me To The Pilot
The Greatest Discovery
Sixty Years On
The King Must Die
Madman Across The Water
Burn Down The Mission
Your Song opening with Elton's American twang evident on his phrasing of the title, not surprising considering his numerous tours to that part of the world by that time. Deliberate or merely a rub off from the environment. Either way, it works. The woodwinds bright and prominent, an often ignored part of Buckmasters repertoire. The Greatest Discovery with the big brass shouts at the end are a classy finale. 60 Years On with the creeping up creepy strings, the acoustic guitar the touching, almost plaintive balance. The woodwinds on the final part, an extra part added to the arrangement for concert purposes, chattering away in the background. The King Must Die with it's light electric guitar and heavy percussion from Ray adding a both shades of colour. Indian Sunset like the rest, sticks as close as possible to the album version, Chris's heavy acoustic bass booming with a smooth feel. Border Song and it's heavy bass strings on the solo with a hard almost guttural sound, the soft backing backing vocals on top eventually rising up...Holy Moses...in the middle of the great divide. Madman Across The Water has the orchestra as manic as the lyric and melody. Wonderfully replicating one of Buckmasters greatest scores. Burn Down The Mission, whilst not having anything like the energy, excitement or variable moves of Elton's live interpretation of that time, it still doesn't go out with a whimper. Herbie's heavy bass lines and the two drummers and percussion are like twin motors driving everyone along in front of them. Ray's conga beats, using a hollow sound to broaden the impact are a sign of later moments onstage with Elton. The energy is a good one, a different one, a one off. Goodbye being the final song, may seem like a metaphor. But it's that thing of perspective again. Elton was saying Goodbye to the Trident days, the written out rhythm notes giving way to the band interpretation of the songs. Unbeknownst, he had already recorded a number one album. So the time was right, the time to cross the great divide...
This show should be fully released on DVD and CD. It was wonderfully filmed, Elton payed for it himself so it should be good! The sound is impeccable, carefully mixed with knowledge and taste. It's an incredible mix of the early '70 to early '72 period of work. Which is a terrific mix, you hear all the best songs from that time performed live almost exactly as they were recorded. No compromises, no gaps. The show is historic, and totally unique. Very few concert performances by any artist in the 70's were filmed to this degree of quality, simply because the cost was prohibitive. It's a great shame this one lies in a tin can somewhere on a dusty old shelf.
I have featured a clip of Tiny Dancer that is not on Philharmonica Freedom but is on the unofficial DVD release. The quality isn't great, but as you can hear has some unique parts. When the bass and acoustic guitars kick in there's no drums, vocal and piano to the forefront. When they do come it's on the bridge to the first chorus, it's that extra embellishment over the way Elton changes that are vital to the song's mood. The strings and vocals rise up for the chorus and then descend again with he long lingering heavy notes of the strings dying slowly. The final chorus whether it be solo or with a cast of 100's never fails to deliver. The outro of just strings, bass, acoustic guitar and piano is amazing. The strings gradually float up as the familiar riff finally fades away...