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.