Thursday, May 22, 2014

'Elton Tours Retrospective - Part V - The 10s'

And here we are at the next part, not the final part, but merely the next stage of what is so far four and a half decades of live performing. As we found out during the last part, Elton had diversified his repertoire and as we'll find out branched out a little more...with varying degrees of success.

I've said it before on this blog many times but in early 2010, especially starting on the Spring tour in the US, is a watershed moment. Because from those shows onwards right up to and including the present day he has opened the locker pulled back the wall at the back went through a portal and returned with a bag of magical performances. Or as most the likely is the case, changes on his domestic affairs contributed. Whatever the catalyst was, the effect is clear for all to hear. His singing has become more demonstrative and his piano playing has increased with equal exhibitionism. Over the next few years...compressed into a few paragraphs...I'm going to try and put all those elements into a clear glass for all to see.


For the first major tour of the year it was the final curtain, hopefully not forever, of the F2F tour. Billy and Elton too had both recovered from their bouts at the end of 2009 and put on one final display of showmanship from both sides of the board. They may many similar styles and some contrasting elements, but their unique personalities always came across when they joined each other for the final segment of the shows. They could ham it up by cutting thick slices and at the same time create a captivating tension that could be sliced such was the heavy drape of it. As I said at when talking about when this tour started over 15 years earlier, I'm a fan of both so it was always a winner when these shows happened. Luckily the final show in Albany in March is preserved. It's as good as any they did since thr first tour began. Both are on fire as are their respective bands.

At the end of March Elton traveled to South Africa to play some shows with Ray Cooper. Thankfully the wind was switched off...Elton can get that done...and these shows were another series of strong performances. The key to the success of these shows has always been Ray's input. Visually when all you see is his rig it's a case of us wondering where does he start. But he always grabs the right tool to get the job done. Later on in the year we'll see him pull another fine piece of precision engineering out. During these shows Elton took time out to debut a new song. For the previous albums when he's shown off a new song so early he always got it right. This time, not at all. You're Never Too Old was a completely wrong song choice. It merely played up to the stereotype balladry image and didn’t generate any sense of buzz. Due to the fact it was drudgery in the first place.

Elton then embarked on another greatest hits tour in April which at the time seemed like another 'here we go again' moment. But as time wore on, after only a few shows in fact, it became clear we were in an undiscovered country. A new world of possibilities had been opened up. He suddenly from nowhere starting throwing out piano lines during regular sections that were unexpected and delightful. His voice increased its passionate delivery, his rephrasing of several key lines adding an untold degree of new life to old dogs. A step beyond a trick I would guess. This show here is a great example looked at bit more closer than I can do here. You’re Never Too Old popped up at some of these shows during the solo set, again not really setting any houses on fire. Or lighters in the venues.

Kim Bullard had used the F2F shows to embed himself into the Elton work camp, not quite a boot camp, but still a great on the job training scheme. When you’re up there with Elton you either sink or swim and he definitely swam strongly. As we’ll see later on, that methodology does get the wheat and chaff into separate barrels. All in all, things were settling down nicely after the upheavals at the end of the previous year. SimfyLive recorded this tour as well as the following summer European tour in great quality. They did a better job that Concertlive at these shows. They captured the audience ambiance far better.

After the summer tour which didn't throw up too many changes from the earlier tour band tour, it was time to enter into new album promotion time. As was the formula with the previous albums releases this century, some special shows were organised to highlight the new album. Before those showcases could take centre stage, a short European tour with Ray threw up another soon to be released song. This one would be the real deal.

Gone To Shiloh is one of those Taupin screen grabs that lasted a few minutes. Elton added an equally audacious melody to create a magnificent soundtrack. Ray adding some precision engineering snare drum on the chorus caught the moment in an instant. The military vibe of the song enhanced with that simple device. Taste and knowledge. You get that from somebody who played with the master for so long. Crazy Water on these shows has a terrific battle between Elton and Ray at the end as they called and responded to each other. Incredible brutality from both sides. Rome is an excellent recording form this tour as is Taormina form the soundboard. We've now heard some solo shots, let’s see what Leon can do with them.

To promote The Union, a couple of special shows were announced for New York and London. With the musicians who played on the album. Ok...let's see how this goes. Incidentally, these shows were the first since Elton played his gig with Nigel and Dee that neither Nigel or Davey were onstage with him at one of his own shows. 40 years and counting. You can't hire that in five minutes. So we're stepping into the unknown here. And about to learn some more too.

For the first show in New York, Leon was not well. At all. Due to recent ill health. So we won't be looking at his performance at this time as that would be unfair. Elton on the other hand was bundle of joy of energy, buoyed by the fact that Leon sat opposite on his own (shorter) piano no doubt. Elton carried this show with his honest interpretations of the songs. Unfortunately this is where the good ended and the rest began. Not at the same time either sometimes...

Essentially these were studio musicians that backed this show. Reading from sheet music and doing an almost by numbers performance, they made sure the show were devoid of any rock and roll spontaneity. Not only that, they had no spark. Someone like Elton thrives through that off the cuff moment that regularly appears. So there was never going to be any of those. The played The Union songs note for note as they appeared on disc with the same dullness of delivery. Jay Bellerose on drums might think he's loud in the studio but he's inaudible live. When I hear a down beat I want to know the snare has been hit. Not a sound like muffled pillows. The guitar solo on Ballad Of A Well Known Gun is so clunkyand awkward with so many angles on it a set square couldn't measure them. Woeful. The brass section sounded a bit oom pah pah in places.

It was when they did the older Elton songs that the pile up occurred. The jam on Levon had Elton trying to cut loose whereas the backing was tied down by the restraints of not deviating from the written out plan. He went his way, they went the wrong way. The Electric Proms show at the Roundhouse in London is was probably worse than the first one. Due to the fact that an appalling act called Plan B performed a duet of I Guess That’s’ Why They Call It The Blues that had lyrics so complicated for him he couldn't remember them. Leon was bit more stronger at this time and was on the road to improvement. Both these shows are fully available in soundboard form. If you want to hear The Union tacks as they appear on disc, it's there. If you want to hear classic Elton songs as they've never appeared before they're all present and correct in watered down poorly rehearsed and executed fashion. Emphasis on the executed…

But these shows weren't the last of the special one-offs. One more was done. An often overlooked example. At The Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles the whole album was again run though its paces. With the backing singers and some select musicians from the previous shows. But with one exception. The EJ and band were in full attendance, all ship shape ad ready to rock. Only a partial recording of this exists. However it sends a coach and horses through the notion that they couldn’t play these songs. First go at them, right first time. You can't fool these old pro's, proper stage musicians as they all are get these moments right. As they would do so with the songs over the next few months.

The Autumn in the US had a new F2F tour of sorts, Leon who by now was starting to get back in the groove playing to crowds he'd not experienced in decades. His own band joined him, a tight bunch of side guns. He did his own set, then Elton and then them both. Nearly all the album was done. To say it was vast improvement on the recorded version would be like the ocean is a bit damp at times. Night and day in contrasting styles. Fort Worth is the only show we have from this tour in complete form that is a terrific evidential piece for everything I've said before. At the end of the year, the two man show toured Europe with only a few songs from it. When Love Is Dying being the standout here. As it was throughout the tour with the band the following year. The solo version given a typical Elton jump to its step.


The tour for the promotion of the album was in full swing. Over half a dozen songs from the album consistently appeared during the run of the tour. It was essentially an Elton show but with Leon's piano wheeled out mid way for the showcase. Leon was now back to full power and his piano playing was rich and heavy with delivery. His voice, though not the greatest, still had its moments. I mention When Love Is Dying again, I did this piece a while back as to how it was a vast contrast between record and stage. Not the last time this would occur. When the tour went to Europe, the backing singers who stayed on since the end of last year were joined by internet act, The 2Cello's. The singers are some of Elton’s best ever and perfectly slipped into the setup whilst never sounding out of place. Only three new songs survived the jump over the ocean, one of them would be further enhanced on this leg of the tour. Gone To Shiloh now had that added dramatic device of the cello's and their low, almost humming line in tow. Easily the best band version. Taken with the Ray Cooper interpretation, they both outdo the recorded version by a landslide. As is the case with Hey Ahab. What was once a mid tempo up beat number, now found it's rocks roots and grew from there. The grinding riff was fully developed by Davey, he took that lick and turned it into the songs hook. In tandem with the cello's on the outro and Lisa Stone giving it some welly, this was another glaring piece of evidence of the disc sounding undercooked and vital ingredients left out right from the start. MSG and Philadelphia are perfect captured from the US tour, Berlin and Lucca doing Europe a great service.

I’ve mentioned before about Elton's workouts and how they've decreased of late. At this time and probably for the last time until they come back again, we find three numbers that evoke all those elements that make Elton what he is as a live act. The full movements of Rocket Man still echoed, Madman Across The Water was now at its most impressive. Like a swell on the ocean, it bubbled and seemed to go on forever. Elton's freestyling on the piano, like free form jazz as Kim Bullard suggested recently, was effortless. Davey on the acoustic guitar caught each trough and peak with typical accomplishment. Think Keith Jarrett with added edge.  Take Me To The Pilot again threw up surprises from all angles on the extended intro, Song For Guy being a welcome visitor, Between them these three songs alone were well over half an hour. Or around 25% of the entire show. No complaints from anyone about that stat I suspect.

For the Autumn tour, a few old favourties returned, The band version of Candle In The Wind sounded as fresh as ever. The harmonies and Davey's well known riff on it all friendly faces. The 2Cello's found a little nugget for themselves to chew on, Holiday Inn with its Buckmaster arrangement was ideal for their skills. This as we’ll see later, wouldn’t always be put to good use. Moscow and Melbourne are excellent examples of the end of year progress made by all on stage

At this time also, Elton ventured into another residency at Caesars Palace. This new show, The Millions Dollar Piano was a whole different affair to the previous enterprise. If you read the review of the film here you’ll get better flavour of what it has to offer.


This is one of those difficult years again, started off in great spirits and ended with reflection. The tour had become a greatest hits event again, but rarities did appear to keep us on our toes. And Elton we hope too. Grey Seal was a terrific introduction, a wonderful up tempo version that had that great break Davey on the outro. Harmony returned, this time with an electric feel rather than acoustic. Still great whatever the packaging. I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol was a real strange one that nobody saw coming. The big brassy riffs played by Kim were spot on. Unfortunately it didn’t last long, as is always the case with these things. Rocket Man had no returned to a more shorter, humbler setting. The MDP show version being of that brevity. Another MDP leak out was Mona Lisa's and the 2Cello's adding their touch. Roanoke and Raleigh being excellent sounding shows from this leg of the tour.

Another one off appearance was at the Ibiza123 Festival. Why was Elton 'giving it large' at this odd venue for him? To do a linkup with Pnau to promote the remix album from that summer. An odd concept in the first place, even odder in practice. Elton's older voice making the live enactment totally at odds with what appeared on disc. The whole thing didn't work as a concept, either live or recorded. Before this mashup happened Elton did a short set for the largely unconverted crowd. I think the version of Levon that night might have had recruited some souls. And saved them!!

The European tour ended with Bob Birch not in great physical shape. It never took away from his performances, right up to the end. His playing and singing were up to his own high standards, as he wasn't or would want to deliver anything less than that. His tragic passing so suddenly; hit everyone hard. To lose one active band member is awful, to lose another so soon after Guy was the worst moment ever. Losing all that experience and camaraderie took something out of the band that can't be replaced. Merely dealt with. Kiev is a great quality version of one his last performances. As the next leg of the tour was almost upon them a replacement had to be found.

Before the band shows picked up again, Elton did some solo shows in Canada. The one in Sarnia was dedicated to Bob. If you listen to it, think of Bob when Elton is singing and visualise what was going to through Elton’s mind. Hearts, melting etc. Matt Bissonnette is without doubt a quality player, Right from the off he came in and put down some mean lines and kept the original parts intact, He still uses the same rig and Ernie Ball bass that Bob used, much in the same way Kim still uses Guy’s old setup. He came in during a time of crisis and helped steady the ship that was in very choppy waters. The Peace One Day concert that streamed live on YouTube is a great early example of how quickly he had settled in.


The first show of 2013 was one of those rare treats. An orchestra show. With James Newton Howard, the only one who can and should do it, conducting. The occasion being Yamaha’s 125th anniversary. Elton was the last of a long line of acts on the night. Backed only by orchestra and Nathan East on bass, he launched into all too brief (three) songs with the assembled musicians. This stripped back performance gave great weight to both Buckmaster's and James' own arrangements. More of this would have been agreeable. Elton did a couple of solo songs to showcase what a wonderful piece of kit the Yamaha is.

A terrific South American tour followed. One incredible show here stands out above all else. This has to be in the top 10 shows Elton has ever played. Buenos Aires in a big outdoor stadium that was a perfect balance of fun and power. One of the greatest versions of I'm Still Standing in the modern era takes the honours here in a long list of contenders. This show should be required listening for anyone of the persuasion of 'What's Elton like live in this day and age?'. A landmark show on a landmark tour.

More greatest hits show in the US in the Spring and then into Europe in the Summer. A high degree of consistency was still being maintained, the reviews glowing as much as Elton's face from the satisfaction he was getting from this stage of his live career. We had now passed the stage of what Elton was or wasn't playing. It was all about the quality. All seemed well. Though as they went to Europe, things started to get a bit disruptive which ended up with a sudden stop. Davey had been suffering with some medical issues that required surgery. So the only choice to fill his shows was naturally John Jorgensen. This special show here tells us why that is always the only and right choice. Just as Davey returned to pick up the tour in Europe, John Mahon got ill suddenly before the show in Cork. The show went on and Nigel did some heroics in filling in for him. The work of two men? Easy for Nigel. So good was the triumph over adversity that night that Elton declared later that it was one of the top5 gigs he’s ever done. He dos like The Marquee! Not long after all this, Elton himself felt ill after a show in France. His appendix was the source of the issue so surgery put paid to the rest of the tour. Time to recompose and return refreshed. Augustenborg is the only show where all five regulars featured and it's captured on disc for us.

And return to promote another new album. The promo run for the last album had started shakily but had picked up as time went on and stayed reasonably strong for many months after its initial release. Would The Diving Board have similar success? The quality of delivery wouldn’t be in doubt. Would the material quality be just as robust? In a word, no. It was quite apparent from the off that these songs would have no live career of any length. Their lifetime for some of them would be only one show. To tease this out more, we must return to a performance a while earlier.

The Capitol Records special eventually ended up released officially. If you listen to it, they are incredibly dull and rushed through as if they were on a stop clock. Elton didn’t seem to be on top of the songs, he hurried his lines with an alarming sense unease. The backing of Bellerose and Saadiq were merely turning up fulfill a fixture. As soon as it was over, they'd forgotten about it. Next job and all that. But it was the quality of the songs that was more worrying. I get the feeling to that the lack of chemistry between star and backing scuppered any chance of one off shows at album release time. So the songs were going to have to sing or swim on their own merits.

For the first show back special BRITS Icon award was created for Elton. Mexican Vacation was debuted here. But ultimately ended in chaos and confusion. Hard to believe I'm writing these words during this particular era. But that's what happened. Where the blame lies was a source of much analysis paralysis. Poor old Nigel got some brickbats as well as Davey. Ultimately Elton must take a great deal of the blame. The last minute rehearsals of songs with musicians that didn't play on the album didn't help. Oscar Wilde Gets Out was road tested on the German tour but it too fell by the wayside. Kind of hard to fathom this decision, one eminent reviewer compared it to 'Ballad of Mack the Knife' from 'Threepenny Opera'. A song that wasn't one of the worst on the album had a tale about somebody that most people would have heard of. A great chance for Elton to spread his story around to those unaware of it, especially as Elton would have had a keen interest in it. But it was filed under the ‘never to be played again’ category. Home Again was the only song from this period that survived to have any life outside of these shows. Elton road tested TDB in various settings, outdoors with large capacities (Berlin), indoors to both large (Leeds) and small (London) audiences. Those places are Elton's work bench. He and the band tried their upmost to make them work, he ran through several of them to see if any could be put across. Probabaly for the first time ever he had a batch of songs that had no communication ability to an audience. So that kind of stumped him.

Elton for a long time had no interest in festivals, his 1995 appearance in Germany finished him with that style of show. But since the decades start, he's been turning up all over the place at them. In September he played the Bestival on the Isle Of Wight, Concertlive doing the recording duties again. Saturday Night's Alright had the crowd participation restored after many years in exile. This shows is terrific as you get the feeling puts on an extra gear when he's playing to an unfamiliar crowd. The iTunes Festival and a one off at the BBC rounded out the promo work. And that was that. Elton went back to the US to resume the MDP residency and the album promo work was over apart from the odd TV appearance

The early winter tour in the US is another milestone affair. Billed (depending on where you read it) as either The Diving Board tour or GYBR 40th tour it quickly became legendary. Any notion of it being a tour to promote the new album quickly fell by the wayside as the current single, Voyeur was ditched. Only leaving Oceans Away and Home Again on board. The setlist began expanding with GYBR songs, due in no small part to their overwhelmingly positive reaction they were getting. Your Sister Can't Twist being the high point of the new additions. The backing singers giving the backing vocals that extra degree of fun. The reviews for this leg of the tour stand testament to where Elton was now. The new album barely got a mention at times in any of them, the GYBR retrospective took up paragraphs. All performances are from this time are priceless. MSG in particular a great souvenir of this time period. The 2Cellos bowed out after this time from the regular tour. There’s no doubt they added a great deal to their time on the road, but the setlist by the end didn't do them any favours. When they ended up playing on I'm Still Standing you knew the game was up in terms of what they could bring to the table in regard to having songs that suited them. But they remain for the MDP shows.


As we reach the present day, what presents do we get? I've Seen That Movie Tour was yet another thunder bolt of joy that shot down from the heaven of Elton's keyboard. Again, reworking it vocally he gave a master class of how a performer can adapt to his changing environs. Davey's waling solo lost nothing in translation either. Roy Rogers with the band again after a long period away in that form brought the total of GYBR songs in the setlist to 10. That's TEN. For a 41 years old album. FORTY ONE. I don't know about you, but if those figures alone don't tell you something then I don't know what does. Probably the great recordings from Toronto and Dallas this year might help. The GYBR anniversary shows are the gift of song that keeps that Elton declares is yours.

The band has been reduced in size again, the backing singers now joining the 2Cello's in only making MDP show appearances. The band sound has returned in unaugmented form, the band harmonies back to the forefront. With no degree of any loss of effort from all concerned on stage.

I hope I've given everyone just a taste of what the live performer is like. We've all seen him live at various times over the years. Different people get different things out of each show. What we can all agree on is that we've have been entertained. Not only by Elton but the band members who have come and gone over the years that added something to the mix. The biggest recognition has to go to the songs, without them none of us would be here. And he wouldn't there.

Long may it continue and hopefully at decades end I can finish this entry to include 2019 and start Part VI!

The 70's
The 80's
The 90's
The 00's

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Elton Tours Retrospective - Part IV - The 00s'

For the fourth part of this saga, and for the fourth decade, if we do a quick overview that are the many mansions of the Elton house we see it spreading like urban sprawl. The sheer diversity and wide scope of the type of show that Elton could now summon is up incredible. Not only that, the sheer volume of shows was also huge. This part has been very difficult to condense. I have tried to zoom in on the more significant moments rather than the run of the mill stuff. If Elton were indeed ever a miller. The quality of performance of never dipped. For the opening part, we find Elton treading the same path he finished the last century on...


Throughout this year he continued the solo tour that brought such acclaim and accolades during 1999. The terrific setlists at the end of that year were trimmed back but nevertheless the shows were still a pot pouri of his songbook. Rocket Man, that barometer of his creative instincts, was now almost complete and ready for the band to add their own accents when they would return. More on their return...and one return in particular...very soon. The summer tour of stately homes in the UK was well in keeping with his reputation for class and style. Some great recordings from that tour, Burghley House and Chatsworth House are intimate inspite of the open and often inclement weather. Syracuse from April and Tulsa from December catch Elton bookending the year in the US. Always slight variations in setlist whenever he crosses water. Some of the European shows from November have American Triangle included, Elton feeling the buzz of the new album a year in advance. 

The year wasn't all about solo Elton though. Every so often, the band would be defrosted and reactivated. For the first activation, he performed a series of mini shows to promote The Road To El Dorado. Yet another new drummer appeared this time, Curt Bisquera. A loose playing beat keeper, he had a very flexible style. All these drummer changes were getting a bit off now, who could they get that wouldn't up stakes and leave when a better offer came along? Who should be there?! Low and behold at these shows who appeared, as he did on the album, on backing vocals and tambourine and stick but Nigel Olsson. An old dog for the new millennium. The joy of just seeing him standing there was overwhelming. Didn't look quite right, but still better to have him there than not. But as we know, he wouldn't be standing for long...

For Nigel's first actual drumming gig, we land at the Broadway Cares tribute show that March. He played on Curt's kit, but he could still find those great expressive parts on Rocket Man in the unfamiliar setting and seating. This isn't a bad show as tributes go, some disposable moments but some good ones too. Nigel's full time return was now cemented, all he needed was his own set of wheels and he'd be off and running. Speeding in fact!

The One Night Only shows...spread over two MSG in October were preceded by a warm up show. Not for Elton as he was on fire all year. But for the band to find the groove again and hold tight. Wilkes-Barre played host to this rehearsal of sorts, but it's better than that. It's a no pressure show where everyone just went with the flow. The songs were kept to a minimum, timewise, for the album release. All hits of course, though the jolly sound of Club At The End added some light relief. As did Little Jeannie with John Jorgenson adding some neat sax. When they got to NY, some familiar and some not so familiar ones at the time were welcomed. 

The official release of ONO is taken from the second night mostly. First night was another 'moment' night. So moving swiftly along, the opening gambit of FFF/LLB with both Nigel and Curt on drums is like a juggernaut in the rear mirror. With twin motors of Davey and John triumphing with equal power. Quite some version. The duets are harmless enough, Kiki did her thing as did Billy. Ronan Keating on Your Song is pretty much awful. But the shows did what they said on the tin, no surprises much or little effort. The main body of the solo tour was over, time to get the band back on the road.


Back on the road was Nigel too. On his own this time, Curt had quit by this time. As did Billy Trudel and John Jorgenson, his multi tasking was missed, still is in fact. The fact he was never replaced always left that yearning he may return one day. As he has done so on a few occasions. And did so quicker than he or anyone would have wanted. Ken Stacey remained from the previous years shows on vocals and occasional acoustic guitar. Which came in useful.

The first series of shows were with Billy. These are great shows, all of them. Especially the early ones of the tour with the longer setlist. Elton had spent the best part of two years conjuring up new lands on the piano, he now populated them with the band. Rocket Man had Davey on double neck electric so the slide licks were present and correct. Ken adding some light acoustic guitar. Nigel and Bob gelled straight away and gave us back the proper sound behind Elton. Nigel doing some great heavy thumping fills at the end of the chorus on Tiny Dancer for instance. As I said earlier, these shows are great as we find Elton and the band teasing out new territories that would come to greater fruition as the years progressed. At the end of the tour, a terrible tragedy struck Davey and John Jorgenson returned briefly to steady the ship. Class, on and off stage. Vancouver and Nashville are great recordings from this tour.

The summer had Elton doing a brief solo tour again, this time in out of the way places in Europe. Ephesus in Turkey was broadcast on the net, when the net was slow, and didn't really work. Luckily it appeared properly later on. It's as per usual a great performance, notable for another new song , This Train Don't Stop There Anymore being debuted. Things were hotting up as summer ended. An Indian summer to come maybe...

The SFWTC tour was preceded by some one off shows which would be become a regular type of event for new albums from hereon in. The two BBC shows from September have a large number from the album, the simplicity yet the true full Elton sound of the album coming across perfectly live. No loss in translation here. Ken Stacey had left to attend to his own career, so we're left with the probably the best band (apart from the one with THAT trio by his side) Elton has ever had. The playing and styling they all added is beyond words now I think. But we'll try and come up with some.

Not long after the BBC shows, days in fact, terrible events happened in the US. Post 9/11 the country was in a sate of fear and uncertainty. So in times of crisis, entertainers must step up and be counted. Elton counted himself first. A lot of big names dived for cover from touring at that time. But Elton put on, I think it's safe to say, probably the greatest batch of shows he's ever done. The shows he did in October, magically preserved examples from Toronto and Columbia for example, especially the latter, are a high water mark that would be impossible to achieve again. A successful album in all senses of the word, a great band assembled and Elton in superb form. His voice was pure gold here, his playing sharp as razor blades. Nigel on Saturday Night's Alright played an amazing unbridled line that emoted joy. Davey had found his Les Paul again and it was all over the set. The intro to FFF/LLB hadn't that harsh Steinberger sound, instead the more bluesy fluid sound seeped out. Some setlist too. Over half a dozen new song that were spread evenly throughout the oldies. Birds followed by Country Comfort sounded as if they were of the same vintage. Take Me Pilot no longer had the long intro in order to expand the setlist, Rocket Man was beginning to develop again, Davey on the acoustic guitar was tapping into Elton's buildup on the piano. Meal Ticket was bang on the money, the crunchy clavinet from Guy giving it that real feel deal. At some of these shows Elton brought Believe back in. And belief. Elton always catches the moment right. Well, nearly all the time. At the special show at MSG that October he did a solo set that included Your Song with Billy, Mona Lisa's and I Want Love. Looks good on paper, but when you saw the other acts rocking it up you kind of get the feeling that Elton misjudged this one. A solo set with a new song maybe wasn't gauged right. But when Elton went to Japan in November for a serious of shows, it was more of the same from before that brief break. Levon on this leg was just off the wall. The relentless drive on the outro before Nigel sped off is one of those moments that you don’t want to end. Or Elton to stop ripping the keys. One of the greatest versions. Ever.


The start of the year saw yet another F2F tour. No problems here, all shows were good until Billy got a bit under the weather again and ended the tour early. Elton then went to Australia to continue his own tour. Holiday Inn was added, the mandolin getting great work out on the tour alongside Ballad Of The Boy and Mona Lisas. For the European leg, Elton came up with a cracking idea. Segueing American Triangle straight into Have Mercy On The Criminal opens up all sorts of questions and of course answers. The death knell note at the of American Triangle that suddenly ups tempo and welcomes in that foot kicking intro. Tingling in the spine. Davey's solo, with distortions present and correct, and Guy mirroring it on the synth was the highlight as much as what went before. Rotterdam is the best recording from this leg of the tour, a terrific up front experience. For the tour in the UK at the end of the year, he did a special show at the old Hammersmith Odeon. And added in some missing in action songs, Saturday Night Night's Alright being one of them.  One show full of such delights was his first orchestral show for over 15 years. James Newton Howard returned to conduct the Royal Academy Of Music orchestra and choir. Elton did a full tour 18 months later with the ensemble, so more on that later. This rarity fest would over spill into the next year.

For the first shows of 2003, Elton did a couple in his US hometown of Atlanta at The Tabernacle. A key moment here these shows. Harmomy being the obvious one to zoom in. A fans favourite with some beautiful Ovation guitar from Davey. These shows are incredible, full of power and passion. Which you might not say about the F2F shows of that year. They were starting to run out steam by now, the setlist had shrunk and the format changed so they didn't do each others songs. Time for a break, but time would return them too. Also around this time NAMM did an excellent tribute show for Elton. Proper artists backed by the EJ band did full justice to his music. Highly recommended this one.

Elton changed emphasis again for the summer. A solo tour in Europe showed up something that would become an off occurrence up to the present day. His voice sounded very rough here, raspy and gruff almost. Whatever the problem was, it didn't impact on the overall delivery. Hampton Court is a nice example from this tour. After a rest, a much needed one, he returned ot the US for more band shows. This type of pace would again would continue ot the present day. Any signs of rustiness his voice had long since passed by the time he did these shows. More rarities appeared again, Dixie Lily being a delightful addition. A more up-tempo ending to the shows was now evident to offset any stereotyping of Elton by critics. The Wasteland's pumping end being one piece of evidence. Manchester from December that year another in your face experience recording.


This year saw the start if his 5 year residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for The Red Piano shows. The idea of going to Vegas once upon of time may have seemed crass, but Elton was one of the first big stars to do it. And now they all do it. Kind of figures. The setlist was a tight résumé of his major moments. No messing around, it gave the audience what they wanted. A key part of the show was Pinball Wizard which returned in '02 with the stunning intro by Guy that he first played live in 1993. The sound of the pinball slots opening and closing fitted neatly into the Vegas vibe. 

The first half of the year saw Elton criss cross from solo to band shows without anything exciting appearing from them. Not what could be said about the orchestral shows he did with the Royal Academy Of Music orchestra in the UK and New York. Oh no. Not at all. 

Elton's concert conductor of choice, James Newton Howard, is always there for these shows. His unique insight into the band environment and his own job of arranging and conducting is critical. His fleshing out of the Buckmaster arrangements was with done style and taste. A huge orchestra of over 100 young musicians included a large choir group. That stuck to the original vocal arrangements with equal respect. At these special shows Elton always pulls performance rabbits or a whole warren of them out in fact, His singing was just as huge as the backing, he had by now arrived at this fulsome wholesome delivery we're now familiar with. His piano playing carefully played out alongside the expertly crafted arrangements. A terrific meeting of talents. The band were bang on the money, their tight playing over the last few years now paying rich dividends, pure equals with the young talent assembled. Not before or since have so many sounded like so few on stage. The big sound became one emotion. Carla/Etude/Tonight demonstrating this on the softer side. Saturday Night's Alright and especially Levon when it got going on the harder reverse. For the New York shows, the orchestra was a mix of Royal Academy students and The Juilliard School Of music players. The soundboard recording of the New York show is excellent, recorded with care and precision. The audience recordings of the UK shows are well done too. One offs are always special when they stay that way. The specialness of these shows will never wear off.

During the NY shows a new song was debuted, Freaks In Love. It, along with the some of its colleagues. appeared at every show from late '04 onwards. A strange place to debut another new song was at the NFL opening in September. Answer In The Sky with the Boston Pops orchestra being the best version of it, ever. A slightly truncated Saturday Night's Alright being the other guest. As was becoming the custom, special shows were done to showcase the new material. The MTV Supersonic TV show in Italy the same month being a great intimate venue with the band free and easy with the new material. As they all played on it, the new album would have terrific promotional energy. Due in no small part to the fact it sounded like it did on disc. Which is sort of important if you want people to buy it. Elton returned to the Tabernacle for a couple of shows where he did 9 songs from the album. And some oldies., Suffice to say it's a terrific representation of where Elton was at the time, influence wise and how important the band had become. And would become. Playing them live added energy and adrenaline to them. Answer In The Sky and My Elusive Drug on both sides of the style coin were standouts here. John Jorgenson made a special appearance on pedal steel to remind us what we ere missing. To make the sound more representative of what the disc had to offer, Elton took the Atlanta Voice Choir who played on the alum on the road for the next 12 months. They are probably the best bunch of backing singers he's ever had. A fine balance of male and female voices, their gospel background didn't really over play on their input on the older songs. They blended beautifully with the existing band harmonies.

When the tour proper kicked off later in the year, the 9 songs gave way to 8 which stayed almost intact in the set till the end of the following year. Playing 8 songs from the start sounds bold. And it is. But it's part of the belief Elton had in the album that didn't waver. Some songs from it still leaked into 2006. To temper any misgivings from the audience, Elton added Bite Your Lip. Davey on the Steinberger giving it one final fling ringing the riff out over and over on the jam as the choir doled out the incredibly arranged backing vocals. Listen to them, they are dead sharp in spite of the relentless pace.


The spring tour saw more of the same, the new songs at the start with FFF/LLB in the middle of the set. But for much different reasons than it was in 75/76. When they hit Europe in the summer, Pinball was the opener as the number of new songs for us Europeans was reduced. But we got the last proper single Elton ever released. Electricity complete with trademark Nigel slow drumming and high harmonies from Bob and John. Another new and welcome twist was the revival of the electric switch Davey did during Rocket Man. The 21 Century version was now in place. Elton's huge vocal buildup and then the band powering back in was a great surprise element for newer fans and the sort of stuff us older fans have come to expect. Elton working out!! Fort Lauderdale and Bolton are some a couple of fine shows from this period, soundwise and otherwise.

During the summer and in the autumn Elton played his part in a couple of multi act shows. At Hyde Park in London in July he took part in the LIVE8 concert. This time he got this set bang on, The Bitch Is Back and Saturday Night's Alright gauged perfectly for the mid afternoon atmosphere. Unfortunately when Pete Doherty stumbled onstage...and that's being perform Children Of The Revolution the insurance assessors were already toting up the cost of this crash. It was a smash of epic proportions, no need to send the wreckage to the crushers. It was well and truly destroyed on site. A performance to be well and truly written off. Unlike Elton's contribution to the Big Easy At The Big Apple to benefit the Hurricane Katrina victims. Again Elton gave a measured performance, Someone Saved My Life Tonight never being more powerful or relevant that night.

Early Autumn saw the tour pick up the trail in the US once again. Another marker time again. The Captain Fantastic 30th shows ranks as the best of the decade, right up there with the late 2001 shows. He still had the confidence to open the show with the 8 Peachtree Road songs and then launch in to all but two of the songs from Captain Fantastic, Writing and Tower Of Babel missing out. Elton proved in 2005 that he could out sing and out play any performance of those same songs from 30 years earlier. Compare these performances with some form the 75/76 period. Elton’s music needs care to be played live, now they were getting it. Captain Fantastic had Davey playing a double neck mandolin and electric 12 string to give that terrific contrast on the verses and chorus. Better Off Dead had The Atlanta Voice Choir perfectly up to speed on the precise nuances of the vocal arrangement. The piece de résistance though was We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains. Every single thing about this performance was a mixture of bitter sweet sadness and ultimate joy being released. Elton's lonely piano intro, his phrasing of the lyrics all evoked these feelings. Nigel on the outro...none of this speeded up cliché that ruined the first live attempt all those years ago. He caught the pace of it and kept it steady. Davey strummed the acoustic guitar on the stand on Curtains and then switched back to this specially designed Les Paul for the occasion to help grind out the end. John adding those vital bells on the synth percussion. A remarkable group of shows in NY, Boston and Atlanta. Half of the entire setlist was taken up with songs from just these two albums. We’ll not see that again.

The tour wrapped up back in Europe with Lindsay Vannoy filling in for Guy Babylon whilst he was away preparing Lestat. A very solid stand in, he got all the parts spot on, The setlist was pretty much the same as the summer tour on the same continent, though Blessed was added in. Terrific acoustic work from Davey as per always on this one.


I think we can safely say this is where the 'greatest hits’ routine really got into full swing. After the release of the next album, touring was still maintained at a phenomenal rate. The summer tour in Europe, now minus the choir, sets this up nicely. Though he still kept some PTR songs. The One came back in, the band version that is. Nigel played this one like he was always meant to. Elton's vocal on this one is always a winner. Take Me To The Pilot was back to its long preamble that is always a joy to open it with. Elton snuck in an intro to a new song during its myriad of movements that we weren’t aware of until later in the year.

For the release of the last album with the band on it, another round of special shows were called for to give The Captain And The Kid a proper showcase. The BBC special similar is style to previous efforts. The transfer of the songs from disc is mirror like. As the album was recorded almost 'live' with minimal overdubs, the live versions weren't undersold or short of impact. At the Rose Theater in New York in front of a bunch of stiffs, he played nearly the whole album in a similar style to two years earlier. He again started the tour with said setlist of the whole album minus And The House Fell Down. But unlike two years earlier songs started dropping off during the North American tour. Until just five remained. Elton's live lust for it dampened by his record company failing on it. This continued until the Australia tour at the end of the year. After that only The Bridge survived for a long run. The live version of it capturing the bands harmonies like sheaths of light further brightened by Guy's trademark synth vocals. Otherwise the setlist was full of the usual suspects. These were going to be characters that would be very hard to shift from now on.


During the following year, a similar vein was maintained in the bad shows. Straightforward setlists with on the ball performances from Elton and the band. A high standard was maintained right the way through. A solo tour in Australia and New Zealand gave some variation both for performer and audience. But of course, the year had its highpoint. And one of the decades, if not the entire live career of Elton.

The 60th birthday show, being a one off, demanded something special to mark it out as beyond special. For the first hour or so of the show, he dealt out more surprises than Cilla Black conjured in 15 years of doing her TV show. The band played the songs that they had never played before like as if it were the 1000th time they had done such was the precision. Elton, being of slightly husky voice, killed the canard during that opening act of his inability to sing the older songs in the 21st Century. The folly of that argument was exposed. High Flying Bird, the epitome of his high flying voice, transferred well to his lower register and fit snugly into it. Ditto Where To Now St. Peter? Martin Tillman on cello sat in as did the same  choir from the orchestra shows under the direction of Adam Chester. Tillman added some great touches on songs that you wouldn't expect cello to appear. The creepy shapes he overlayed on Eton's vocal buildup on Rocket Man is stunning. Equally gripping is his take on FFF/LLB. He played along with Guy on the synth intro, making it one of the best ever. Where cello and synth ended and started, nobody knew. But he wasn’t finished. He then grabbed Davey’s' hook on his opening guitar intro and at the same time emphasizing Bob's bass and Nigel’s' kick drum with greater intensity. It sounded as good as it sounds.

2008 wasn't really much different to 2007. The Red Piano tour in Europe being the most obvious difference. The greatest hits package was the order of the day, no new album to now promote but still plenty of willing participants to turn up. Which they did in their droves. One show stands out though in particular. When Elton goes to some of the off the main road type of locations, the crowd reactions are a little bit more energetic than some of the more mainstream locations. The solo show from Fairbanks in Alaska is out of the way you can get. But there’s something quite special about this show. Elton feeds off the crowds hunger and gives one of those special performances.


We reach the end of the decade...and the end of an era. More on that later. The year started with the return of F2F. Again. The break away had given both parties renewed appetite for the format, but the continuance of it in North America only was a mistake. Why they didn’t take it out of the country again is anyone's guess. However, the shows from the early part of the year are excellent. It'd only when we come to the summer shows, in particular the final shows in Philadelphia, that it went Pete Tong again. Billy got, eh, sick again and the reports weren't good. Shows for later in the year were rescheduled for 2010.

The summer tour in Europe was a technological advance for recordings. Concertlive released recordings of every show from that tour in soundboard quality. Beautiful!! Especially the addition of Skyline Pigeon with the band. Stunning. As was the up-tempo opening of FFF/LLB and Saturday Night's Alright, the synth intro dropping in as recovery from the ending of LLB was still catching breath. These shows were great and poignant.

Poignant as they were last shows in Europe for Guy. The Philly shows were his last ever with Elton. His passing left a hole that can't be filled, both for his studio contributions, his work on the musicals and what he did to make the 'Elton sound' live as rich and true to its roots as were possible. His skill in that area in the programming he created for the back catalogue when an old song was dusted off is incredible. the wealth of material he left behind had been a great source for his replacement. 

Before the next set of band shows, some solo dates were performed. Naples being a tribute show to Guy. The two man show with Ray also arose like Lazarus. The first of these at the Royal Albert Hall has the most multi coloured setlist of the modern era. I stress the modern era aspect in particular. The last three albums (to that point) were well represented, unlike in the band shows for instance. Blues Never Fade Away being dedicated to Guy. The subsequent European shows were also recorded by Concertlive so we have a terrific record of these rarely heard songs. What we also have preserved in great detail is Elton's voice at this time. The raspiness of it was very evident. As was his sometimes hesitant piano playing. Something not heard is such a striking manner since 1990. He didn't seem to be as tuned into Ray as you might expect either. I wouldn’t have expected the gap since they last played together to been any hindrance, but something wasn't right. Which would become clearer later on.

The Red Piano had finished its Vegas run earlier in the year and the now the final performances were to be in Europe and that was to be that of it. To take over keyboard duties was Kim Bullard. Somebody with a stunning CV in terms of playing and producing. Poco and CSN being just two on that list. So no problems there. He had only a short space of time to learn the incredible maze of arrangements that Guy brought to the show. But he got there, he was crisp and clean on all the synth parts. On the organ and electric piano he brought his own style where the song allowed such a divergence. But alas, all that would have to be further looked at in the next decade.

We can only imagine how hard it was for Elton to get back on the road so soon after losing a friend first and a colleague equally first. He's not their boss, they're not their workers. They are family both on and off stage. For the band to continue is beyond comprehension. Around this time Elton lost a number of other close confidants. During the Red Piano tour Elton became seriously ill and the rest of the tour was shelved permanently. Elton took time out to recharge his mental and physical batteries. 

Not surprising when you look back at the decades work. Putting aside what he did in the studio in that time, he toured constantly through those ten years at a rate of knots. The diversity of the shows, the continuous maintenance of such a high standard takes its toll. The burning question now is, could he maintain that almost supermanlike level? Or, say it quietly, even improve on it?! You'll have to wait for the next installment...the last but continuing part.

The 70's
The 80's
The 90's
The 10's

Monday, May 19, 2014

'Elton Tours Retrospective - Part III - The 90s'

For the next installment of this foray through the Elton stage journey, we pick up where we left off at the end of the 80's segment. Well, sort of. Sort of in terms of we know how things ended up but we're not quite sure of the final path. As we'll see, it's quite a diverse decade from a concert point of view. Elton was expanding the performance mansions of his house, which would have even more extensions on the following decade. But we'll stick with the 90's for now and continue the trawl...


At the end of the US tour in late '89, which was Elton's worst up to and since then, there was a change of personnel. 'Sugarfoot' must have found an artist that suited his showy style and luckily for us departed the scene. And even luckier for us was the return of Charlie Morgan after his (mercifully) brief period away. His measured style always a pleasant contrast to that of his temporary replacement. His first series of shows back was for the mysterious tour in Australia. Mysterious in the fact that very little of any substance, in both senses of the word, is known of that tour. All the previous tours in that region from the previous decade are well documented. Not this one though. With very good reason. From what I can gather about this tour, and the feedback is sketchy at best, it bordered on as near to a shambles as it possible without the wheels coming off permanently. So it's probably best that history has left this period undocumented.

Fast forward to May, 1990. What we do have is recorded evidence from the 3 night's he played at the Taj Mahl in Atlantic City. Damning evidence. Elton at this stage was performing from memory. His piano playing was almost at a standstill, the songs performed during the solo set are a stark reminder of this fact. Even on the uptempo numbers his passion on the keys are absent, the workout on I Don't Wanna is lethargic at best. Lyrics are frequently misplaced or missed out altogether. Very little to recommend about these shows, his performance of rarely heard brilliant songs like Healing Hands and Made For Me make it bearable on those rare moments. But change was around the corner...a change that saved Elton's life. On and off the stage.

Before the transmogrification could commence, Elton found the energy to summon up one last great performance before rehabilitating himself. The MTV Unplugged phenomenon was at it's height, so who better than Elton to switch off the amps and pump up the sound. For this one off set, he ditched the Roland and treated us...and himself I a proper grand piano. Took sanctuary on it, in fact. At this time Ryan White was fully on his mind. So his focus was sharpened. I'd rate this performance in the same bracket as Edinburgh '76 in terms of significance in fact. Both occurred at times when he was burned out, except this time the candle almost extinguished from being burnt in every direction. On both occasions he sat down at the piano and delivered a performance that harshly contrasted with those that had went before just a while earlier. The warm sound of the piano is terrifically showcased. Tiny Dancer is intense, almost melancholic such is the power of the delivery. Bennie had great depth, intricate with no brevity of passion. A stunning performance overall, one that told Elton he still had it. All he had to do was clear the away the rubbish and he'd be open for business again.


After a long break, very long by Elton standards, he was ready to feel a little muscle again. Before he went back on tour, he had an important duty to do. The Dee Murray tribute shows in March '92 are both defining moments here. Two shows in one day to commemorate his best ever bass player had both Elton at his introspective and entertaining best. For the first time in nearly two decades his head was clear and he could now focus on his art. Both shows had Elton alone at the piano, switching from Yamaha grand to the Roland. He was finding his fingers again, and they were going to find some gems over the next 20 years and still counting.

The world tour found Elton still a contemporary chart act. In both singles and albums. The shows on this tour were energetic and embryonic. The birth of so many great aspects of Elton's live repertoire was now beginning. Guy Babylon introduced another of his great intros for the 1992 shows which was an intertwined medley of Elton melodies. For the 1993 shows he created an incredible collage of sounds to herald Pinball Wizard. An intro that would survive on the song until the end of the following decade. A new keyboard player replaced Fred Mandel, Mark Taylor was his name. Though he seemed very anonymous in comparison. With too much synth at times also. Joining Charlie in the engine room was Bob Birch on bass. Another cornerstone of Elton's studio and stage career for the next 20 years. Right from the outset his ability was put into perspective. His incredible bass twists and turns on the jam for Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatter's Part 2 was a glaring contrast to the previous live examples. Charlies 'real' drum sound gave The One songs that much needed organic feel to them, his stadium filling sound left nobody untouched. The backing singers were still there, killing Sad Songs each night. Slowly and painfully with excruciating results. 

Barcelona, Philadelphia and Albany are just some of the great recordings from the '92 leg of the tour. It finds Elton reconnecting with the audience and being in more control of what he's doing. The jams are more intelligent than some of the earlier efforts for example. His playing had quickened in pace and his singing became certain again. He was now on the way to his best vocal period and nothing was going to hinder it. As we go into 1993 we find Elton is starting to cut loose even more. The joy of getting back on track is evidenced in the way he now beginning to expand songs. Earls Court '93, the best band show of that year bar none and crystal clear in sound, has an intro to Bennie that hovers and then attacks. Rocket Man was beginning to journey again. The setlist for the shows for that year had some old friends pop up, Captain Fantastic and Empty Garden being just two of the many high points. Elton was making steady progression, but at the time he was only setting out. Greater peaks had yet to be achieved. So on to the next step of that ascent.

The Walden Woods benefit show in September '93 is another marking point. Here we find Elton stripped sound that is. The backing singers were moved aside permanently, the second keyboard player also followed them out. What we now have is Elton at his best. A few people on stage that are all relevant and don't step over each other. Which in turn makes those that are there up their game. Winners alright. Elton's piano and Guy's arrangements from here on in  become powerful, dominant elements live. This show marked one of the last time the Roland was seen. Hurrah!! But before it went into cold storage, Elton found time to pound out some really aggressive riffs on it, his opening gambit on The Bitch Is Back is glass like in pureness. Exciting times!!

Ray Cooper Shows 1993-95

Even more excitement when Ray Cooper made a cameo appearance for another set of two man shows, the first since '79. But an even greater moment was Elton sitting regularly at a grand paino again. The white Steinway put in a fleeting appearance before he settled on the black Yamaha. And what a resting spot. A proper sounding keyboard (by Elton's own admission) that did full justice to artist and material. These late '93 shows are terrific 'getting to know you again' meetings for both parties. With Ray and the piano.The inclusion of We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains for the '93 shows with the proper tubular bells lament on the closing lost none of it's might with the stripped back sound. The jam on Levon was born and grown to epic proportions. Even bigger and more impressive was the intro to Take Me To The Pilot. Elton had taken the piano by the scruff and has given it a beating. The MIDI added some clever shading and vibrant colour. These shows appeared on and off through '94 and into '95 where they finished in Japan. Some really great recordings here, Fort Lauderdale and Sun City (with added wind) from '93 are vital. The Greek Theater, Royal Albert Hall from late '94 has some terrific shows recorded. Elton had reached into his inner soul with these shows. He had worked out new paths for many songs. Using these new found walkways, he could now travel along the these routes and take the band with him. This is going to be even more exciting!!

F2F with Billy Joel 1994-95

Summer of 1994. That was the name of the first Face To Face shows with Billy Joel. Huge stadiums in the US, fresh from the World Cup that summer, filled to the rafters. I'm a big fan of Billy too, as I've mentioned before, so these shows were win, win for me. If you don't like Billy and had to go to these shows, I'd hate that. The two of them played off each other with fun and rivalry equally mixed. I'm going to look at the Elton segments only, if I do the Billy stuff as well there may channel changing. 

To put it simply, Elton at this time was in one of my favourite 'live' periods. His voice was at it's post-operative peak. He still had a lightness and airiness, when he wanted it, and the deep voice of today hadn't yet overwhelmed the rest of his range. It had a natural flow. In the same way that his piano playing had a laid back, care free attitude. It was like as if he barely touched the keys and the magic flowed. The Yamaha gave him a more luminous sound, he was comfortable at his work bench. And that comfort produced some show stopping moments. The band harmonies returned in all their glory. The inclusion of Ray now made this band lineup one his greatest ever, in my top 5 certainly. 

A word on Davey here. He was now starting to make proper instrument choices again. His playing had become more truer, if that makes any sense. He'd become more to the fore again, willing to take risks again in pursuit of Elton on the piano. The switch he did during Rocket Man from acoustic to electric added that always necessary edge at the right time. Unlike the similar take on the same song in '89 which did nothing to enhance and already appalling effort. Elton was developing it (Rocket Man) to new extremes. The sudden stops and gradual buildups came in and went out as quick as they appeared. Both of the F2F tours from '94 and '95 are stunning, Billy was on top form and Elton never let the side down either. The setlist he did was balanced and energetic. One of the best. Elton's version of New York Sate Of Mind with a wailing solo from Davey is incredible. Plenty of great shows available from this period, the soundboard of Philly '94 and Giants Stadium from '94 are excellent. As is Clemson from '95. One of the great tours from both players. 

It's no exaggeration to say that Elton in a short space of time had undid the damage he inflicted at the end of the 80's that other artists would have never recovered from. The next tour had him riding on the crest of a wave. For now, Elton was like the river flowing and the band like tributaries flowing in at different points adding to the voluminous sound he was making. The next tour saw him reaching the ocean...a deep and cavernous one.


Elton was now on the best band tour of the 90's and one of the best of his entire career. He'd steadily grown back during the first half of the decade, using the Ray shows to tease out new adventures on the piano. He'd vocally improved no end and had balanced it sweetly. With no saccharine. The tour was exhaustive and sapping of all energy. But rewarding on a grand scale. Let's look at some of the rewards he gave himself...and us.

You're kind of wondering how Elton could improve of the previous shows of '94 and early '95. By adding another ingredient that made the taste yummier. John Jorgenson is a  favourite of this blog, I've mentioned him plenty of times already here. His arrival was a terrific fillip for the band. Both in terms of sound and influence. His proper American sound (none of this watered down 'Americana' rubbish) of steel and roots instruments was perfect for Elton's music. Incredibly stylish. Twenty years earlier the the addition of the second guitarist only doubled was already there. John's incredibly variances in his own instrument choice meant we got a more colourful, earthier sound. His influence on Davey can't be underestimated either. Because at this time Davey had started to re-introduce the roots instruments that were badly missing for so long. The mandolin that appeared again in '92 was now joined by the banjo on Honky Cat. John's addition to give a terrific album that extra live oomph paid dividends, both for the newer songs and the older material. Pedal steel on Dixie Lily being a case in point for the old class.

Charlie on the drums made sure all the great Nigel parts were present, correct and speaking. The slow drumming on Don't Let The Sun Go Down One Me, Someone Saved My Life Tonight and FFF/LLB for instance turned up when drummers of the past couldn't or wouldn't (take your pick) let them in. Bob right from the off was always equally clued into Elton's music. His melodic parts were equally class. Even when he missed the end of the tour due to an unfortunate road accident, David Paton filled in with no loss to the music. Guy was now vital to Elton's live work. His intricate arranging made sure you knew you were at an Elton show. What you heard on disc was there on stage. His playing live of Funeral For A Friend is a first class study of synth playing. His low humming organ line of the slow burning intro to the US tour on I'm Still Standing another fine example of his keyboard versatility. Ray was now in full solo mode during this tour. His grip of the segue between Saturday Night's Alright and Pinball Wizard was all his. No wonder everything on his rig was bolted down!! 

Around this time digital audience recordings began to appear. Which in turn meant we have some outstanding examples from this tour. The US leg of the tour are the best. Columbia and Madison Square Garden are just some of many amazing shows. I know I've said it before, but there are truly no duds on this tour. Or indeed anything from '92 onwards. Everything is beyond exceptional. Pretty exceptional is the final show of the year, Rio from November '95. Soundboard with gorgeous aural beauty. Elton and the band deliver a barnstorming show that is a landmark. Too many highlights on it for this entry, but a must have for any collection. Not surprising highlights were officially released.

So Elton ended the tour right back at the top. Steady but exciting progress from the turn of the decade had reaped rich rewards and reviews. But Elton needed some time off to recharge the battery cells. But before the next tour could resume, as per usual with Elton, another landmark moment popped up. Which changed the whole dynamic of his career forever.


His live 'performance' at Westminster Abbey, London in September 1997 had vast repercussions as vast as the worldwide audience on television. From that moment on, Elton entered the realms of 'living legend'. Which in turn drew in audiences based merely on that moniker. Certainly a whole new generation was drawn in to his music but a wing that got the 'chills' from just being there, irrespective of what he actually did or omitted on stage, popped up. The idea of Elton just being another rock star had vanished forever. His new found fame certainly had an impact on his live career. The audience reaction Elton got for the late '97, early '98 crowds were like nothing seen since the 70's. That observation from one of Elton's own band members, if you please.

The start of the tour in the US in October saw more personnel changes. Ray Cooper disappeared...for over a decade...and John Mahon stepped in. Tough gig to follow, but he's still there adding his own style to proceedings. Which we'll see over the next while. Billy Trudel joined also, his band connections (Warpipes) making him an easy choice. His high end vocals fleshed out many returning songs to the set. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road reappearing after 13 years away just one of the songs he helped embellish. Odd choices from the The Big Picture didn't help it's promotion. Not the last time that hindered an album promotion.

Elton's voice was getting deeper now, hence the need for a high end balance. The change from the last tour was noticeable, as it would be year on year for the year few years. But it never lost it's strength. Nor did his piano playing. One workout in particular bore this out. I Don't Wanna Go On With You Like That had been gradually getting more adventurous as the decade wore on. But come this tour, it had reached it's ultimate version. The main song was pitch perfect. Elton's extension of the outro became more and more aggressive, he frequently tested himself...and the crowd no to how far he could stretch it. Very far! Simple Life/The One was another of the 90's staples that as time wore on became an even grander beast. On this tour, like the previous example, it attained ultimate velocity. It opened a lot of the early part of the tour. The added heavy percussion by John Mahon, increased and more widespread synths from Guy culminated in the song being at least half a beat faster. John Jorgenson and Davey adding ripping guitar riffs, the opening scene a thunder clap as Elton walked on stage. A far cry was it's mid paced '92/93 version. Another highlight of the early part of the tour was We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtain celebrating his and Bernie's 30 years together. An amazing version that stayed true to it's origins. 

During the tour, as we'll see more of later on, some diversions were taken. VH-1 Storytellers, a variation of MTV Unplugged, found Elton in an intimate environment doing exactly as the title suggested. Telling stories in song and in chat. Another one off solo show in Paris in early '98 catches Elton in one of those cut loose moments. Take Me To The Pilot has been frequently quoted being one of the all time greats from this show. The Face To Face bandwagon resumed in Australia and New Zealand before heading to Japan and then Europe. Unfortunately Billy got ill during the European leg. So Elton continued the tour with an extra long set. A leg of the tour that saw the departure of Charlie Morgan. A terrible loss to the band, we'll see very soon how his absence was noticed immediately. For me, he's right up there with Nigel as someone who treated Elton's music with the taste and craft it deserves. They are the only two drummers for me, they worked perfect with equal ability in the studio and live.

When the tour resumed in the US in August '98, the new drummer arrived. Jack Bruno has a solid track record, but some of his drumming early on in the tour was sub par, to say the least. I'm not sure how much rehearsal time he had, but he wasn't clued in on the whole deal. There wasn't much improvement as time went on, even with on the job training!! That being said, the setlists were excellent. Circle Of Life, I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol, Texan Love Song, Better Off Dead and Hercules just some of the older songs to make rare appearances in late '98. Though not all lasted the entire run, as would become the case from now on. Rare songs at some shows starting out only to disappear quickly. Captain Fantastic made a comeback, but the increased tempo change on the chorus did nothing for it.

I was looking back on some of the reviews of this tour whilst researching this part of the series. Quite a few were not complimentary, kickbacks of Elton's sudden burst of successful media attention I suspect. There are tonnes of great quality recordings from this tour. I've mentioned the solo one's already, Winston-Salem and Knoxville from '97 are excellent. Atlanta from '98 being a great late Charlie Morgan show. Austin, Anaheim and Philadelphia have Bruno sitting in with stunning setlists to temper that anomaly. By the end of the tour you get the feeling the 'greatest hits' vibe that has hung over the live shows for many years was beginning to set in. But before they could take hold, Elton makes one of his bravest tour choices since he went out with Ray twenty years earlier.


I'm sure a lot people reading this are familiar with Keith Jarrett. He of the 'don't cough at my show' fame when he does his solo routine. He may be a bit awkward that way, but he's probably the best and certainly the most well know live solo concert piano player of Elton's generation. For Elton late in his career to do a fully fledged solo tour, nearly 25 years after the very first solo show, was radical. Stepping out of the comfort zone of having a backing band to live and die by your own talents. But as we all know, Elton was up to it. Could critics and skeptics be convinced?

Again looking at back at the reviews for this tour, especially the opening leg, is a complete contrast to the last tour. To a man and woman they proclaimed his status as the number one piano player and songsmith. An eclectic setlist that cast an electric spell over audiences made it's way across North America and then Europe as the 21st Century approached. Like a Millennium bug, except a bit nicer! He went through the back catalogue and sung songs that some (not me) thought weren't possible in this new age of deeper voice. Friends being the most obvious standout. He added a current hit, Written In The Stars that was the start of the autumn moment of having major hits in a current setlist. Jarrett was a great man for the improvisations, but Elton as far as I'm concerned could beat him at that and put it side by side with the constructed pieces as if they were always soul mates. Bennie got him back in The Mood, literally. Take Me To The Pilot had incredible journey's, his left hand on it showing why the Yamaha kicked the Roland into touch. It's full, rich sound making the huge sold out venues seem a little smaller inside. Anyone who needs an example of Elton at his classical solo best, then the finest example is the stitching on Carla/Etude/Tonight. With invisible gold thread. Amazing. His total reworking of Philadelphia Freedom with it's electric piano sound showed why Elton is better than any other artist at covering his own material. Rocket Man was now in  the first stages of having yet another new version created. A version once perfected and tidied up would be an intrinsic part of Elton's live set with the band right into the second decade of the third millennium.

This tour was breathtaking in terms of what it stood for and what it delivered. Nearly everything recorded during this year is essential. The sound is incredible, recording the piano on it's own I suspect was an easier task than a band show for the tapers in the audience. Roanoke(opening show), Baltimore, Lucca, Chicago are vital here. But the number one has to be MSG from November '99. Another stand out show. He transfixed the massive venue with his methods. At no point when you listen to the show are you in any doubt that you're hearing something special. Soundboard quality at it's best with all the atmosphere mixed carefully.

And in the end, the years ends. But in this case the millennium. Which saw Elton do two band shows in Las Vegas, one on the 30th and the other on the 31st of December. The first one is fine, the second one has Elton in one his 'moments'. Not funny if you've paid a lot money for a once in a, millennium in fact, occasion. Some people may think it's fun, but trust me on this one. It's not.

So we've reached the end of the decade, a time span that if appeared on a chart would be a steady progression. He ended the last one and started this one circling the drain. How close he came to going down it is anybody's guess. But that's for another blog, those things are not for discussion here. What we do know is he put himself back where he belonged and where he had been for so long. Would he still be together in the 21st Century? Hop over at midnight and we'll find out!

The 70's
The 80's
The 00's
The 10's