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 suspect...to 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 back...in 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!!
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 doubt...as 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!