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 nights...at 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 kind...to 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.