Monday, June 29, 2015

A Dandelion(el) Held Them Tight!

I did this related piece exactly one year ago basically setting out why Elton should be a dead cert for Glastonbury. Another year has come and went and the urgency for Elton appear at it is now as frantic as Euro's flying out of an Athens ATM. If the act with no musical portfolio, otherwise known as Mr. Kim Kardashian, is indeed the biggest then all we have to work out next is the biggest what. Though hasn’t the wife won that accolade several years in a row…anyway, the thing is we're running out of the 'classic' acts to fill up the schedule, especially the marquee slots. Some horrendous characters are waiting in the wings and more likely than not will run on to the rocks. The wrong sort. If Pete Doherty can still get 5 star reviews in 2015 then the game is indeed almost up. 

Further down the menu is where the real attractions lie. I was looking forward to seeing Burt Bacharach opening his songbook but unfortunately despite his best efforts (87 and still oozing charm and a classy touch) even he was dragged down by three singers who were a combination of X Factor rejects and part time cabaret support acts. If you're going to do justice to the songs which span a couple of generations then you have to have a real star vocalist. Not just the ability to sing the song but to connect with the audience. Kind of important when you're stepping into the shoes of Dionne, Sandie, Dusty, Cilla, Petula, Aretha, Karen and Gladys to name but a few. 

As I pointed out last year, the ‘legends’ slot is now fast becoming ‘the’ slot to be inserted into. Sunday evening teatime and basically you can grip the crowd (and a sizeable telly audience) and do with them whatever you wish once you’ve seized power. Lionel Richie did exactly that yesterday (even getting security to join in...I bet some folks think a parallel universe now exists) and like Dolly last year is getting all the plaudits. The Who closing out the entire weekend with a tight, no nonsense set are being equally showered with similar platitudes. All rightly well deserved. If both of them hadn’t appeared then the viewing figures would have been down by more than just me. If I were a betting man...which I'm not...I'd lay good money Billy Joel will be doing that exact same slot within the next year or two. If you put the really big acts on, they never fail to deliver. By the way, that FFS hookup has to be one pop’s great latter day masterstrokes…

So what of Elton. Looking down the guest list over the years his glaring absence is now becoming more evident. Filed under the legend that never won an Oscar category. All his contemporaries, not to mention those that came before him and since, have all played there. I’m not sure what the situation is at the moment, whether the organisers aren’t keen or what. If not, get keen I say. If they are, get on the phone and book Elton for Sunday of next year. They can work out the fine details of whether he’ll do the legends slot or the headline slot in due course. Either way as the slow drop of the curtain is now underway it’s critical that he finally take his rightful place on the roll of honour that is the guest list at the festival. In 50 years time when kids of tomorrow ask why everybody from a self proclaimed God right down to the Wombles pitched up but Elton didn’t what are they to be told? For somebody who has done it all, it would be indeed be the final as yet unrealised achievement. 

One thing I’ve noticed is that the crowds at the US festivals seem to be more reserved than at Glastonbury. Lionel Richie did Bonnaroo a few weeks ago but even he was unprepared for the reaction he got on the English farm. He’s put down a marker as to what is expected. If an old pro like him has indeed felt the force then just imagine Elton going there and by the time FFF/LLB has finished the crowd has given him an injection of a boostful additive into his adrenaline. Which logically could or would possibly mean Elton may deliver a defining late career live performance that would be talked about for years. The crowd connecting back with the artist can indeed be the ‘twelfth man’. A setlist that would keep the ballads to a minimum (Your Song of course!) and push the uptempo aspect of the repertoire to the front would be truly magnificent. Like the hammers of hell he would beat them into submission. Hopefully this time next year we’ll be waking up to headlines of musical celebration rather than confrontation…


'Look At Dolly, She Did It Right'

Sunday, June 28, 2015

'Sincere Flattery'

One of the most common phrases to describe Elton is that he's the ultimate musical magpie. Taking bits and bobs from here and there and making it his own. But he's also a bit of a stork, delivering influences far and wide. 

To highlight this I'm looking at some classical pieces that undoubtedly have possibly lent themselves (at least to this untrained ear!) in terms of influence on Elton and then I'll look at another piece that has an (possibly) unmistakable influence taken from Elton. When he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London he unconsciously (as do most reluctant students!) took on board more than he thought during his time there. If the building blocks of basic structure were indeed just that, he soaked up how those blocks could be built into a super structure. Like a sponge he took on board the multiple facets of his art. But like a real sponge he works both ways. When you squeeze him a mix of musical juices that were a combination of what he learned and what was his own personality spilled out. The depth, breadth and width of what makes 'Elton John' the composer is truly epic.

Schubert - Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major Op. 90 (D899)

This piece played by the 'go to' interpreter of solo piano pieces, Alfred Brendel, is a fairly clear example of Elton delving into a timeless melody and subconsciously giving it a new twist. A well known piece in the piano repertoire of any student or teacher, the obvious traits of this piece are clear to hear on FFF/LLB, especially on the solo live version with Ray Cooper. The carefully paced steady progression treads a path we know very well. Slower here, Elton's brisker adaption is carefully judged. The contrast of intense and contemplative passages is also trawling familiar ground, never at odds with each other but merely jostling lightly for equal attention.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

The buildup to the climatic conclusion of Carla/Etude has certainly been influenced in no small part here. And what makes this even more special is the fact that's its a non piano work so again Elton's classical studies were broad and engaging. The second movement is what we're interested in here, but only a small part of it. It's great piece but if you don't have time to listen to it in full, then listen from 18:53 to 19:04 to hear a fragment of the theme or motif that appears throughout the movement that has more than hint of familiarity; the progressive nature of the melody is highlighted by the more urgent woodwind arrangement of James Newton Howard replacing the violin interpretation for a subtle yet crucial transfer to the final overture of what is without question one of Elton's (and by default because of it's arrangement, James Newton Howard) finest moments.

Arvo Pärt Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten 

This piece is highly unusual but the most striking part of it, the sudden stop, should be familiar to Elton listeners. But that's not the only element of familiarity at play here. The original version of Sixty Years On with the device of it's bare naked strings coming to life is very much in evidence here. Buckmaster's arrangement starts slowly and broods steadily but has possibly been taken one step further here. With the added tolling bell, the individual elements are with a greater sense of foreboding and a quite deliberate corralling of the elements into forming one body mass. At the same time the sound becomes heavier and darker full of self generating power. Almost overwhelming us in grief (as it's intention is) the sudden stop into bleak nothingness is only broken by the fade of the bell toll.

The composer in all likelihood may not have ever heard the original version of Sixty Years On whilst living under the cloud of the USSR, but then again we do know they were resourceful in hearing Western music during those times. So it's not beyond the realms of possibility Pärt may have stumbled upon it, accidentally or otherwise.

What have we deduced? Elton never went down the Eric Carmen route thankfully but as we can see he slipped in tiny, tasteful elements of his vast music knowledge (probably more vast than even the most wildest imaginations can imagine) and making his own material even more fulfilling. Plus we can only speculate on how his own influence has spread far and wide. Maybe further than even he imagines... 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

'The Other Men From Shiloh'

There was a terrific two part series on the music of the US civil war recently on BBC Radio 2. Presented by Kris Kristofferson, part one dealt with the music of the war, the second installment dealt with the music inspired by the conflict. Inspired maybe not the right word and being loosely taken as war is no inspiration in reality. War is ugly at the worst of times, a civil war is at the bottom end of the minger scale. I should know having lived in a country that had it's own civil war in the early 1920's after the foundation of the State when we became independent from Britain. More recently of course there was another long running conflict on the island that was a civil war in all but name. The deep rooted after effects become entrenched and are at times impossible to reconcile for generations.

In both cases the legacy of those brutal conflicts lives on. You only have to switch on the telly any night to see how the race conflict is still not quite resolved over there, 150 years after peace broke out. It would be inaccurate to say the triumph of the winner or the pity of the loser is celebrated in the music of the time and thereafter but it does serve as a barometer of the contemporary and the seemingly never ending legacy issues. Not romanticised but merely humansied as is the cost of such mindless escapades.

For us outsiders needing a gateway in to this conflict, we can look no further than to our own bard. Taupin of course has been a great student of such matters, his 'outside looking in' persona was celebrated here a while back. His unbiased view from that standpoint has led him to become our teacher, his snapshots have led us to further explore the little features he presented us with early on. Whilst the first part of the Radio 2 series was very enlightening in it's historical context, part two and the songs that followed on right into the 21st Century had a glaring omission. Namely Elton musically portraying Bernie's tales from the foot soldiers steps.

As per usual, almost by default, it referenced the noted social commentators of Dylan and Springsteen on this matter. And their take on the conflict, how it impacted then and now and how they expressed it through their music. Lesson's not learnt, etc. And of course Elton was overlooked. Not for the first time on these type of programmes, either. There are reasons for that of course, but that's for another day to be expanded on. What should have been in it was Bernie's latter day take on it all, this time from the 'inside looking inwards' perspective.

The 'Men From Shiloh'...nothing to do with the other men who are said to have 'Gone To Shiloh'

The Men From Shiloh weren't just The Virginian and Trampas, but the men of what was by all accounts a bloodbath in another part and another time in US history. The mention of Sherman (not the tank) as name checked in the lyrics was enough to instill fear and loathing down south in the early 1860's. Controversial at the time, still in that category today due to the nature of the 'slash and burn' techniques he employed. But Bernie instills humanity in the narrative; the family left behind as your typical 'Johnny' goes marching off to war. Whether he came back or not we never know, but one thing is for certain. The family left behind irrespective of whether he did return or not would be changed forever. Which goes to prove that the battlefield scare has a far and reaching touch. The entire lyric has to be in Berrnie's top 10, a direct cousin to the Tumbleweed imaginings. It's life in song would travel far with various (and quick) uniform changes.

The version on The Union with two 'outsiders' (though both have strong connections with the south in fairness), Elton and Neil Young stand shoulder height with Leon Russell to take turns in describing the unfolding life changing events of this simple farming family. Lyrically it's looking southwards, but in truth could have been written (as Bernie has done before) from a southern perspective.  The sound is almost shrouded in mist and dense fog, the background sound is hard to make out clearly in the swirling fine vapour. Ah, the producers touch. His light feel in conveying the military sound of the time (brass and drums) is understated. Too much so. The brass in particular hints at something all true Eltonites will find familiar. If Buckmaster had been present to flesh out that arrangement it would have even more pleasing. If a style similar to My Father's Gun had been employed, he could have 'upped' the brass and kept it on top whilst keeping the strings low and below and maybe introducing them higher up near the finale (as he did on My Father's Gun also). The folly of absenting the song of such a terrific embellishment would be clear later on. 

One of the early forays of the song into the live arena was in Italy in Autumn (we don't 'Fall' here!) 2010. The solo shows with Ray Cooper...always full of promise and delivery but with a new song always one to savour in terms of what are they going to do with it. Gone To Shiloh appeared not as pure solo but with Ray plucking the most obvious device from the original and making it a central part of the song's message. Pushing it to the front, he took aim on the snare drum and drove Elton along, proud and upright with defiance. Defiant in showcasing a new song and equally purposeful in it's delivery. The longer, brighter intro was the first clue to that line of intent. A light magical touch from Ray and we had an instant classic live version of the song to deal with. Not the first or last, luckily.

I'll skip over the Beacon Theatre, NY and Roundhouse in London performances with Leon. As they don't really butter my parsnips. Elton and Leon gave some tour de force versions in early 2011 with one version fully of irony. A March 2011 example at MSG, NY with a genuine southern rocker Gregg Allman taking the position (not for the first time) of the other 'Southern Man' is a strange curio. He's been asked to take the role of what would be for him the 'other side' and act it out. No surprise maybe that his performance was unsure and oddly distracted. I wonder...did the irony of ironies become too much.

We return to Italy again for the Lucca festival in summer 2011. This time Elton, the band and the singers are joined by an early appearance of the The 2Cello's. This is where the rubber stamp marked 'definitive' is inked and slammed down. Hard. If Buckmasters arrangement was a wish, then the 2Cellos almost grant it to us. A song that is suited and booted to a tee to their talents, as soon as they quite literally swing into action, the hard sound with it's deeply melancholic lament are all paired perfectly. But of course the 'rock edge' that I love is providing reinforcements. Davey's light bluesy licks are like putty between Elton's vocal on the verse's, holding it all together. John and Nigel split up and weave at various times during the engagement. John on solo snare again shows he can be just as adept as Ray when it comes to marking out his own territory. Nigel, sure footed as ever, quite literally and very explicitly drives the rhythm on both kick drums. What a sound! If the 2Cellos are masters of the lower ranks, then up loud and proud is Kim. He boosts the brass and makes it as it should be. On the battlefield it had to be strong to try and compete with the artillery bombardments and flying bullets. The marching bands of the era were vocal and purposeful and that is what we hear. 

But we hear even more from Elton. His vocal, which in turn is led what is by now a more experienced understanding of the song, has given him a more insightful take on it. The final chorus and it's vocal lift and jump testifies to that. But it's his harmonising with Tata Vega on the chorus that needs further noting. Her vocal is slightly behind giving it an eerie echo at times, the completely contrasting voices never drown or smother.

As was noted on the programme the strength of the songs to be still remembered 150 years after they were first appeared is an epitaph to the men featured in them. Their relevance may have changed but their legacy has not. I think Bernie has got both elements nailed down.