Tuesday, July 15, 2014

'Standing Here For All The World To See'

Anyone of this fair isle, unless they've been in a coma for the last two weeks or back from their holidays on Mars, can't fail to have noticed the continuing saga (thankfully now over) of the on/off 5 night stand. Those who luckily were oblivious to all the mind numbing shenanigans just Google Garth Brooks, Croke Park and Dublin City Council. Best of luck on that one.

The reason I broached that subject and quickly sent you on your way elsewhere for more information was for a few relevant reasons. This time 20 years ago the very first Face To Face shows started in the US. During that run they did a 5 nighter at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey. With a licence to thrill, both legally and artistically. I bet they passed off without a hitch...thankfully I was lucky enough to see this style of show in Croke Park in 1998 when they did two dates there. Again hitchless. The other reason being, at this is the most crucial one, the whole fiasco is beyond words from me at this point. And has very little to do with this blog.

Anyway, from that tour I had on the (only) soundboard recording that recently became available. The Philadelphia show from early on is of impeccable quality.

The band lineup Elton had at the time...

Charlie Morgan - drums
Bob Birch -bass
Guy Babylon - keyboards
Ray Cooper  - percussion
Davey Johnstone - guitars

...is one of the best ever. They were real tight as the newer men (at the time) had really settled into their roles. The live sound was starting to come back to it's full glory after some very dodgy years. The Roland toy had been dumped...into a very deep hole I hope...and the backing singers who at times were too flashy and showy had also been bid farewell. Elton using the Yamaha for the first time on a band show sounded like a man set free. It sounded right to the audience and no doubt Elton was finding he finally had an 88 that matched his demands. His voice at this time is one of my favourite era's He still had the light and airiness (when he looked for it) of pre-operation with the newer lower register than was still perfectly balanced. 

I don't want to do a complete review of the 3 CD set...non-Billy fans will be reaching for the off button...but I'll list some of the highlights from Elton's set.

Levon - An extremely tight and vibrant version. The outro is devoid of the sped up technique used for the last dozen years or so. Instead we have a more steady jam, one where Bob increases the weight but resists the temptation to really kick on. That potenntially unfilling but ultimately satisfying lingering right to the end being a critical key. You can just imagine Charlie wanting to kick on, but Elton holds firm!

Rocket Man - An incredibly breezy version, it just flows out of Elton like a gentle running tap. The outro is pure improv, both from Elton and the band. There's a part on it where Elton does a funky little riff that develops with Davey (having already done his acoustic to electric switch) suddenly ramps it up with one his most aggressive lines that results in bursting point. An terrific moment.

Simple Life/The One - Charlie's regimented drumming is beautifully complimented the by the loose tambourine ryhthms that Ray flips out. The One is almost standstill, a freeze frame of sound that still ticks along withoiut you realising your moving. An incredible 10 minutes or so of fluctuating vibrancy. Not the last of course during Elton's set of that duration or freedom of exclamation.

New York State Of Mind - When Elton covers most other people songs they work great. But this isn't great, it's grandiose in the extreme. He nails the phrasing, one of the highlights of the song, perfectly. Guy gets the arrangement spot on and Davey's guitar solo, replacing the sax solo on the original, is immaculate. It's gritty, determined with no lack of melody 

Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding - If ever a case study was needed to prove why the Roland was junk and had to be replaced, then the intro here would make the open and shut case watertight. The versions with said toy sounded tinny and hollow. Whereas here in 1994 we had a live version where the proper depth to that brilliant intro is fully realised. The full majesty of it restored. Even Davey on the Steinberger, a guitar for me that has less good moments than bad, sounds great. The grinding sound of it carrying the message perfectly. Ray on the timpani is obscene...he beats them into submission. Guy plays all the proper synth parts and the great balance of the soundboard recording means all contributions are pitch perfect. The outro is it's usual combination of speed and design.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

'Million Dollar Piano - DVD Review'

Continuing the recent trend of new arrivals, the DVD release of the Million Dollar Piano show is next to be scrutinised. What delights do we get this time...on this review I'm not going to do any close scrutiny of the show itself. I did that on the review of the cinema release last March. My opinion of it hasn't changed since then. What I'll focus on is the bonus material and any bits of the main feature that became clearer in focus upon repeated viewings.

The DVD including bonus features runs to 155 minutes. A fairly long running time considering it's a single disc. A couple of striking things emerge from watching the DVD as opposed to the cinema release. The sound for starters is a vast improvement. It had to be, anything less would have been mono. It's sharper with a greater punch, mixed far better and the 5.1 surround configuration (on which I watched it at home) shows us what was sadly lacking in the picture house. I would have thought at the very least they've had that basic Dolby surround for the theatrical version. It's absence lessened the experience of what it should and could have been. Hopefully in the future that anomaly will be corrected for similar films. 

The picture mix however is still comical. I watched the DVD about half a dozen times over the weekend and I'm now slightly confused as to what they were trying to achieve. During every song bar one, more on it later, the picture mashup suggests more than one show was filmed. Probably two at least, maybe more. The best evidence of that is Elton's hair switches back and forth from tousled fringe to a sharply combed down position. This happens during the space of a single line in a song. Yet the audio is seamlessly mixed. Assuming of course they mixed the corresponding audio and picture. I think they may have used a single audio version and remixed the pictures from multiple shows. Whatever the reason it's a bizarre tread running the length of the performance. Except during Saturday Night's Alright. It's taken from one performance, the presence of the crowd on stage meant it would be impossible to recut. Makes you wonder why they did it for the rest of the show if they could do it for that one song. Apart from that oddity, it doesn't detract from the performance.

Now on to the bonus material. The making of segment has been available already on a version of The Diving Board released in the US last year. It's very short, less than 25 minutes, but still delves behind the scenes and into the machine that is Blossom. The clips of the workshop are very interesting, the fabrication part is truly a work of delicacy and precision. Yet that fine art has to have ruggedness and comfort. That sense of comfort never more clearly evident than manicured keys. That's right, the piano keys are individually filed and shaped to receive Elton's fingers with greater comfort. There's plenty of input from the main protagonists, including the late Mark Fisher whose concept was realised in all it's glory. The set design being a classy collision of regal pomp and religious glory. The development from the piano upwards and outwards to complete the full spectacle is detailed in depth by various facilitators. 

The rest of the bonus material is a bit of a disc filler I think. The Kiev show was widely available on the unofficial market as soon it was broadcast in June 2012. EJ.com released it officially through the Rocket Club recently. Yet we get 4 tracks from it, making it two versions of Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me on the disc. Anybody familiar with this period on the Elton timeline will know poor old Bob Birch was suffering. No need to elaborate here on all that. But to see him sitting there when he was clearly under stresses we can't imagine was sad and almost distressing. It's a curious show to have chosen from to tack on a few extra tracks. The main feature is a glorious tribute to him when he was still in his groove. You could see he was enjoying the Vegas show, the Kiev one not so much. Same goes for this particular viewer for both shows.

Overall it's an excellent showing off of the show in Vegas. It's a pity that Hey Ahab or even Empty Garden couldn't have been included but as I intimated earlier events meant that anything filmed after summer 2012 would have been impossible to tie in with the existing footage. The better sound mix really makes the home viewing experience a far more satisfying moment. It's a terrific performance overall...thankfully what stays in Vegas doesn't always stay under wraps!!

'Silent Movies, Talking Pictures'

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

'Elton John Showbook - New 2014 Tour Programme'

It's always good to get a new Elton item...the newer the better...and they don't come much fresher off the production line than the new tour book.

I love collecting the tour books, my collection isn't yet complete (will it ever be!) but it's almost there. They are a great snapshot from the visual point of view of the wonderful pictures and the contemporary narrative they contain of where Elton was at that point in time of his career. Always exquisitely produced, they are items to treasure.

Thanks to the angel of the north, I've been able to get my little mits on one right now. The wait till December this year wasn't an option! And waited we have for a new one. The last edition was in 2011, a grand affair that was befitting of all those inside it. However, life can change overnight as it did suddenly in 2012. Bob's passing and Matt's arrival was a significant moment on the Elton timeline. However, the powers that be didn't get the memo on that and up to quite recently...earlier this year in fact...were still selling the old edition. No need to explain to anybody reading this blog the total disregard at best, insensitivity at worst for that state of affairs. Thankfully the penny fell and equilibrium has been restored.  

The new edition, entitled 'Elton John Showbook' is a large square sized book in keeping with recent versions. The cover has a mock vinyl record type cover that may play...but that would mean cutting it up to find out. Inside it's lavished with new photos from the current tour. This is important as it includes Elton and the band in action on the new stage design. That bang up to date aspect makes it feel incredibly current. Excellently photographed, Elton having a keen eye for the odd photo will no doubt appreciate their stunning capturing. There's a brief bio text of Elton from John F. Higgins. Bernie has a piece dedicated to him...by none other than Mrs. Taupin. It's a general oversight from her with some personal insights. A man of many talents is our Bernie and she leaves us in no doubt as to what his capabilities are. 

The band are featured prominently...as is proper order...with Matt finally getting his dues paid. His mention of Bob is a touching connection with the immediate past. 
Ray Cooper also features with two pages dedicated to him. 

This is where the multi purpose aspect of the new book comes into focus. It mentions that some or all of the featured musicians may or may not appear. So the new book will be around for a while yet it seems. It's one size fits all edict will cover band, solo or Ray shows. A Ray show...hopefully more than a promise and more of a treat.

Overall it's typical of the standard we've come accustomed to over the years, it's value for money on any day of the week. A colourful souvenir of a colourful performace. An interesting aspect is the fact there's no advert for The Diving Board. But one for the Million Dollar Piano DVD. As I mentioned earlier, life can move on very quickly. One interesting footnote to end on is a 'where are they now' question has been answered. Under the title of tour road merchandising sales is Chris Thomas. Who knew...