On this blog I like to look at some rare live versions of songs, one-off hybrids if you wish. For this particular one I started with the first one I chose, but when I got thinking about it and started mapping out my thoughts I began to get visions in my mind of a couple of other favourite versions of mine of this song. So I stretched this post out to include another two...there are more of course...but I just wanted to try and link the three together.
James Newton Howard is a genius +1. To this day...and I mean only a couple of weeks ago...when he conducted a string section of student at the USC in Los Angeles backing Elton and the band, he is still the concert conductor of choice for Elton. His appearance at the Yamaha 125th show in January as described earlier on this blog is another testament to his abilities. The questions is, why is he the most suitable baton waver for Elton's music? The answer is simple. He learned his trade on the field so to speak...playing in the studio with Elton and of course touring with his band. By doing so he came in contact with a lot of Elton catalogue from the golden years, he 'got' the Buckmaster arrangements, Live In Australia documents that no end. So having that feel for the music from the band perspective he was in the unique and therefore ideal position to bring to life onstage those arrangements as orchestra conductor. Both Buckmaster's and his own. Tonight being one of his greatest.
The first example is from the retirement concert, Empire Pool November 1977. Wherever Elton's mind was at the time...most likely flitting in and out off the stage...he still delivered a strong performance. None more so here. His measured playing balanced without excessive urgency. His voice, high parts still intact and attained had now got the subtle hints, though not as strong as any of the few 1978 performances and certainly not near the 1979 edition of it, of his recent Seattle trip. Elton was changing. In appearance and sound. The Steinway sounding every much the concert grand...but in the background James appears on electric piano. Because the sound quality is so poor from the audio, it's impossible almost to recognise what type. I suspect it's a Fender Rhodes, the watery, fluid sound of it flowing over Elton's big sound seems right. The two of them over a year earlier in combination with the LSO had put to disc one of the landmark musical statements by both parties. Along with Bernie's plea. But now here are four hands, dishing out the sound of a hundred or so players. The strength of the song not lost in any transcription. The long drawn out outro with every emotion wrung from the moment. Some emotion onstage indeed.
Skip forward a decade or so to same place, different name. Wembley Arena 14th December 1985. This time we hear an energetic Elton. A new band on tour...one of the greatest EJ bands of all time I would say...some of whom giving a new twist to the song. His vibrant playing right from the off, determined and urgent. The MIDI hookup adding some versatile colour, Fred Mandel's synth whilst not recreating every element of the orchestral arrangement still reaches for the vital parts. When Ray Cooper chimes in...quite literally...the razor sharp chills of each strikes he makes fills the space left by Elton's sudden piano stop. Elton's vocal at this stage not showing (much) effects of troubles to come again emotes passion in abundance. But the key moment for me on this version of the song...one of the great inventive parts onstage parts ever dreamed up...is when Davey majestically appears. The fluid guitar line, it's weeping melody carefully and delicately tracking Elton is incredible. Both in terms of concept and delivery. How do we replicate the LSO onstage? Get Davey to put a line down and hey presto we've invented a whole new avenue of pleasure to travel down. FANTASTIC!! Elton's departure is just as fierce as his arrival, his chunky chords and Davey's shimmering fade out on the guitar segueing into a another mood shift. But there we leave this venue and skip forward 12,000 miles and exactly one year.
Sydney Entertainment Centre, 14th December 1986. One of the, if not THE tours with the most force. Of mind, body and soul. Anyone familiar with this tour...and I know plenty who are like me and they know who they are think this tour the is the bizz...will know what's it about. If you don't, check out the first Elton album I ever bought, Live In Australia. Plenty on that to keep you entertained.
And here we are full circle, the arranger and conductor of the original score is now back in the fold. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra primed and ready to be waved into battle with Elton. And what a battle it is for Elton...but he perseveres. His vocal, much maligned in some quarters on this tour, not here on this blog though, is a tour de force of passion and honesty which can't be faulted. His playing is back to a more balanced approach, less frenetic than a year earlier. The orchestra in support dictates his training is brought into play. James's original score now fleshed out with timpani, giving those dramatic swirls and crescendos. The romantic feel of his arrangement in tandem with the doomy gloomy lyrics are another of the classic EJ/BT ironic comments. The section after Ray chimes in again has the steady buildup of woodwinds, the strings with the low bass notes gradually build up and a wave of sound heralds Elton's vocal in.
Out of adversity, triumph. Elton's full expressive playing, the glorious metallic sound of the Steinway vibrating through every ear until the orchestra whisperingly sweeps back in, each instrument wonderfully arranged to make full use if it's abilities and brilliantly recorded by Gus Dudgeon. Ray's cymbals begin the buildup to the huge ending, which is neither overblown nor overdue. The French horn's announcing Elton's final plea of Bernie's plight. The outro is calm restored, the strings and piano fading out as one...decaying naturally. Like the ending love story in the lyric...