Saturday, August 29, 2015

'The Piano Makes Its Stand'

The Marquee, Cork. June 2011. A significant date in terms of Elton history. Why? Because we got to hear Funeral For A Friend played three times in succession. All because the piano broke down. Cue man with little screwdriver, twiddling the twiddly bits and Hey presto he was like Ahab off and running. Elton's current piano the Yamaha, is in Elton's own words that night, the Ferrari of pianos. And who can argue. If you're going for speed with good handling and a sweet sounding motor then he's riding the right horse. But it's not always been the case that the live piano has had such a high degree of engineering. Elton being the first and foremost of the piano players that reached vast live audiences he has (with the help of the men with the screwdrivers) really been to the forefront of developing a live piano sound that is truly the best. Ground was broke...before the piano broke.

They say the first taste of you food you make is with your eyes. Our meal of choice is Elton as most of us who are Elton fans are first and foremost listeners. So when we head out for a night at ‘his place’ our ears will be our eyes and taste buds all rolled into one. Trying to describe to someone who has never heard Elton's live piano would be like reading a review of an album that you've never heard and making all sorts of deductions. Then again, that may be possible...even on this blog...but one thing is for sure. The sound in the auditorium can never be repeated at home. Putting aside the acoustics of the venue, the mixing and the sheer volume it's the actual sound the piano makes that is impossible to replicate. The sheer depth of it, the power that flashes out like an unseen shockwave each time Elton hits a key. By the time it hits your gut, you’ve got a pretty deep hole gouged out. But it's also the clarity of the whole procedure. Elton's little nuances in how light and heavy his touch relayed from his finger tips to our ears with zero lose of translation. And that’s the key.

By the time we get to hear a live show disc any imperfections can be rendered inaudible. Remixing can push his sound up and down to the mixers to one’s own satisfaction. Not always to the listener's of course. If Elton's people are doing a sound mix and the broadcast host use it then all is well. If somebody else thinks they know best, then disaster can strike. But that's something for a future blog post, this time we'll focus on how Elton has developed with the aid of cutting edge technology a piano sound that can hack it like the Martini girl. Anytime, anywhere etc.

Back in the 70's the live piano sound in stadium shows was distant and indistinct in amongst the band mix. On its own it had a 'sticky' sound, like as if the hammers had drying glue on them. Wings and Pink Floyd outside of the Elton world are testament to that. A sound that didn't really carry or last long wasn’t s true live representation of what he was all about in terms of getting his sound across. When he played indoor venues the sound was superior. Up to that period of time technicians were well versed in setting up pianos for live music indoors. But Elton’s style of music demanded new advances in micing and mixing, amplification was going to be key to any future developments. But outdoors had never been really done before and as Elton around 1975 was expanding into the stadium field then the boffins were going to have to rewire the mother board. Running alongside all of this was the advances on the mixing. The piano sound on the Edinburgh show (1976) and the Rainbow Theatre (1977) are probably the zenith achieved during that time period in terms of the ‘purest’ acoustic sound generated. They had the ‘base’ sound perfected and were now able to do exciting things with it .Going as far as they probably could with that model, in to view comes a white charger to lead a new offensive.

So when what is commonly known as the ‘White Steinway' appeared on tour in 1980 it brought a whole new dynamic to Elton's live piano style. No coincidence that the golden age of solo's started around this time I suspect. No longer hampered by an underpowered unit, Elton felt comfortable playing a device that responded to his needs, desires and moods. If ever musician and instrument became one, then this was certainly the eve of conception. Where was previously a piano sound that muddy at best, lost altogether at worst, in its place stepped a sharper more brighter sound. It's almost metallic sound, like aluminum reflecting bright sunshine with heat, it cut through even the most aggressive (as all the shows in the 80's were up to 1986) of band mixes that you never felt Elton was overborne by those around him. In fact because he could 'mix it' (on all senses) he could battle, be in tandem and in some cases outdo Davey on guitar such was the verocity of his playing. Like I said earlier, he was finally at ease with an instrument. He wasn't the sideshow sound to the sounds around him.

By the time of the 85/86 World tour which culminated in the terrific Tour De Force, he had succumbed to modern technology and added the MIDI hookup to the old beast. Like a new set of colours, a more flashier sound could be incorporated into the more traditional sound. The integrity of the acoustic sound was never devalued, nor was the added colour anything off a Klaus Wunderlich album. It was interwoven, especially when Elton was solo at the piano, to flesh out parts that detailed what could have been hidden otherwise. So the age of digital had finally arrived for Elton onstage. How would he take it on to the step.

Roland. A name in the 80's that conjures up a wide variety of emotions. Whether it be rat's or past pupils of Grange Hill, the piano that Elton used in the late 80's/early 90's certainly has a great reputation among the piano playing public. But for the piano listening public something didn't sound right. I've mentioned it's failings as s standalone instrument elsewhere, so we'll move along. Because at the request of Elton, a new piano was sought after he got fed of looking at everyone straight ahead for those few years.

In 1993 during the short tour with Ray Cooper the white Steinway reappeared for the first few shows. Then a black Yamaha at the subsequent shows. Essentially what was happening here Elton was road testing both machines to see how he felt with them, the first hurdle to be jumped. And how they sounded on the floor. In other words, he desired to go back to a more truer sound, organic with added technology that was kind to its roots. At the end of the tour he had settled on what has become his ride of choice, the Yamaha with its various pieces of technical aftermarket addon’s. These are done for two reasons. For Elton as the artist to deliver exactly what he wants and for the audience to hear it exactly as he intends it.

The Yamaha was ahead of its time but is now not behind the times and I think that is best summed up every time Elton takes to the stage. Because he’s still using it. As a direct result of the unseen switches and gismo’s lurking in its underbelly Elton, especially for a solo show, can deliver an incredibly rich and full sound. The string patches he incorporates for example never distract nor detract. Inserted at the right time just to neatly dress the songs. I did a piece  on the Fairbanks show in 2008 recently with all those elements and more are present and correct. The acoustic sound of the Yamaha, which sets itself as the basis of everything he does on stage, is luxuriatedly mixed with the MIDI hookup and in turn they combine to create an almost unique sound for every song. Each song in turn has its own identity. Everything is balanced and mixed with measured textures. The treble is finely gauged; his light touch is captured right down to the the slightest movement of the little finger. The bass is sturdy and strong; Elton’s left is the heaviest in piano rock and every night it withstands that (kind) abuse and the deep rooted power of it thunders loud and proud.

If the music and the word are to be married, then the piano is indeed the matchmaker. For that marriage to work there has to be peace and harmony with all participants. I think the divorce courts won’t be contacted any time soon. I couldn’t possibly give examples of the many facets of the piano sound. I think most folks reading this will have their own. But I want to leave with one piece. No matter how often you hear the same song and the countless times it’s been performed there’s always one version that stands out. If the White Steinway was indeed the peak of acoustic technology then what better way to showcase it than this incredible version of Song For Guy. Some of the high notes he hits at the end, well, if they don’t hit you ‘there’ then your armour must be pretty thick…

Saturday, August 15, 2015

'The Night Elton Set Ice On Fire'

In the midst of the summer shenanigans of security and never ending newspaper headlines in various tongues, the news from the Madrid show that Elton is no longer going to do solo shows came like a hammer blow. Until he played a solo show a few miles up the road in the south of France a few days later. But not being a fully paid up member of the 'great and the good' club I would have been unable to attend. Shame of course, he's now closed off an avenue of pleasure to the masses that has taken a considerable amount of lead out of Elton's touring pencil.

Thankfully the audience tapers over the years have captured some great solo shows. One in particular stands out for me, both in terms of performance and responsiveness. That's right, a crowd at a solo show who if you didn't know the time or place, you'd have thought what you were hearing was those brief interludes when the band retreats to the shadows. This was no Keith Jarrett type recital were even the merest exhalation of breath above his accepted levels could cause a walkout. Of the artist if you please. What happened this night made the concept of the piano recital dangerous, adventurous and ultimately contagious. 

The sound here is better than soundboard; the audience are like the '12th man'. You can hear the sound is self contained but has a panoramic dynamism to it. A crowd that is more than enthusiastic, it's exuberance at time threatens to spill over into something raging and fast spreading. Or maybe it did. And why not. Remember that dreadful old rubbish on telly many years ago, 'Father Dowling Investigates'. Too ludicrous for words to describe it's concept, one of the running gags in it was the threat of being sent to Alaska. Or just east of the USSR as it was then. So you get the idea of how the other 49'ers must perceive that last outpost. So when Elton pitched up for a mini tour in May 2008 it's no wonder they thawed out all that pent up emotion. Reports of Elton being up to his knees in defrosted joy may be wide of the mark but there's no doubt when Elton plays these out of the way places to deprived audiences rather than to the spoiled regular venues there's a spark that ignites between the two participants. Many sparks make ignition, ignition causes combustion and then BANG!

Touching down in Fairbanks, this crowd banged from the off. 'This One's For You' line in Your Song whipped up a frenzied response only moments in to the show that was louder than some final curtain calls in other destinations. That set down the marker, Elton and the crowd 'felt' it so soon into the show and from that point onwards they had each others measure. Like two sparring partners who knew what the limits were. Unlimited...incredibly 60 Years On had wolf whistles during that long intro, the leaden bass notes vibrating the crowd off their feet (nobody was sitting I suspect). The bridge has calmer waters, this deep cut (lovely old phrase) has made a deep impact already. These folks know their Elton onions. I Need You To Turn To which is unfortunately cut has hints of music from the Middle Ages, no time limit on Elton's ability to delve back into music history. Border Song again summons up a holler of a roar right at the start, every passionate vocal and keyboard expression by Elton is returned by erupting torrents of spewing cheers. The opening suite of a selection from 'Elton John' (including The Greatest Discovery) has gone down a storm. Can Elton maintain the musical equivalent of all that energy of Alaskan bad weather being channeled into something more enjoyable?

Honky Cat with it's accelerating final flourish at the end is more than a breeze; the crowd is literally torn up from their positions. Up to where Rocket Men soar...shrills and shrieks are illicited every now and then during each chorus. The din is maintained and sustained, the Midi waves like an airbrush sweeping across with various shades of darkness punctuated by tiny glimmers of bright light white. That's just the main body of Rocket Man, if that was the positioning of the trajectory then the workout at the end is the blast off. As Elton's vocal bricks are built upon, right at that highest point one of the loudest cheers is heard, Decibel meter please...they used to say a million gallons of water was pumped under the Space Shuttle when it lifted off in Cape Canaveral. To stop the state of Florida from sinking into the sea...lucky that Fairbanks has plenty of naturally occurring coolant, isn't it?! The slightly altered ending is Elton taking cue form this response to try something different, something as a payback for getting warm love in a cold climate. The response from the Fairbanks folks...cataclysmic.

Moan Lisa's And Mad Hatters always deserves reverence and it gets it by the shovel load here. A rare moment of hushed tranquility, the crowd mesmerised for a brief moment as they probably for the first time since the show began realise the enormity of what thy're seeing. Elton in THEIR hometown! As I alluded to earlier, Nikita is now so far west it's almost east. And at home. But returning east Elton gives the unfamiliar crowd something that is radically unusual for them. The solo version of Philadelphia Freedom. Elton's vocal dominates here, it's as he quite pointedly lowers the keyboard register and lets his singing do the talking. His technique changes tact throughout, as if he's saying to his adoring audience 'look what I can really do when the mood really takes me'. Carefully chosen piano lines on the outro are truly spellbinding. 

Someone Saved My Life Tonight have the high notes accessible, at any time he wants he just plucks them from above on some hidden hanger. It's an icy version, not icy cold but icy in terms of it's clarity and delivery. Not to mention his always icy mention of the 'princess'. Absolute zero in terms of any sympathy from Taupin about the electric chair occupier. Levon again cheerleads the crowd into a rousing passage to the final hurdles. 'Jesus Want To Go To Venus' being like some rallying call to actually get the aforementioned character on the first rocket out of town with the destination on the front. The outro is like a march of victory; the rapturous applause and hollering akin to crowds lining up either side for the homecoming. Helped in no small way by Elton's incessant changes in tempo and pace, it's apoplexy in the venue at this stage. He gets louder on the piano, they up the noise level within an instant of him doing so. The improvisation elements never suffer, at no time does he neglect them even when the speed is becoming breakneck and almost breakboard.

If oxegen was becoming scare then the Carla/Etude/Tonight medley was indeed like a huge mask pumping fresh clean air back into all those overworked lungs. In and out they go as they relax in silence to the most thoughtful side of Elton's music, the intensity of Tonight in particular captivating the crowd to the point of absolute zero sound. Amazing the control Elton has over the crowd, one minute he has them baying the next they're like docile huskies. But there's not going to be too long to drift off, Bennie And The Jets has the hammers of hell rouse them once more. Elton is now assaulting his friendly weapon, how it doesn't go out of tune under such a viscous and prolonged attack is surely down the men with spanners having high a degree of expertise. Speaking of experts, Elton reaches back again into the musical past to make the old hat of In The Mood a new hat, it's worn with pure extravagance and at outrageous angles. Near shows end I'm Still Standing opens with an unknown theme from an unknown European film, the unseen credits flash by as quickly as Elton hands over the keyboard as he pounds out those heavy muscular chords. With just a slight degree of sinister undercurrent.

In case you hadn't gathered already, I think this is the best solo Elton show ever. It's a power supply that that has a two way grid between performer and audience.  Too often we can been critical of an artist not being up for it, but if the crowd are in the mood then the artist by his very nature is going to feed off that energy solely on pure instinct. This crowd are well up for it from the off, they don't care there's no band. They are going to be the rhythm and the lead. The power of the lyric and the impact of the music is never lost, in fact because of the 'purer' sound it springs out with a natural aplomb. Elton's various keyboard styles are all present and correct, too many to mention of course. One that jumps out though and isn't often mentioned is how he uses his left hand to create so many lead medleys rather than his right. That wonderful technique is littered throughout, no matter how often you listen to Elton live, even doing the same song year upon year, you'll still hear something new. Hearing it for the first time must have been intoxicating and exhilarating on so many levels for that westerly outpost. I suspect the people of Fairbanks seven years later are still itching from the scratch Elton gave them...

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

'Born To Be A Guitar Star'

We're slap bang in the middle of the silly season and if that's not enough they're already running ads on the telly for this years X-Factor. The concept of it has manifested itself into a sense that is now a given, that training from the bottom up over a period of time to try and get anywhere in the music business has now been parked. Entering in to it's place is the new sense of wellbeing, where dreams are quickly created then crushed into smithereens. For laughs. Here tonight, gone later tonight type of talentless droids. No coincidence in the week that Cilla Black passed either. Anybody who saw the excellent Sheridan Smith (who is brilliant in everything she does) drama on ITV a few month's back will see how it used to be. For any artist that came out of that era, just change the name, their sex and the story follows a similar hard, long path. With added longevity thrown in for good measure. If you can survive the northern clubs in England, then anything is small fry compared to the nightly gauntlet of wheel tappers and shunters.

Luckily though during this down period SKY Arts ran a new talent search show, Guitar Star. Spread over four categories of classical, acoustic, jazz and rock they held open auditions all over the UK and Ireland. The full series is on Youtube, I advise you to check it out. It's a welcome relief to see proper musicians looking to get a chance to prove themselves. No doubting that they are all talented, part of the shows remit was to have them mentored by guitar greats to prepare them for playing in an ensemble and more importantly for the winner, in front of a huge crowd on the main stage at the Latitude festival. A type of environemnt where the also rans are weeded out very quickly. A bit like these football tricksters you see doing a milliom keepy uppies. Put them into a team in front of 40,000 at Anfield and most likely they'll fall flat. So the interaction between their team mates and the crowd is vital.

Borne by nature and nurture, born to do it.

Luckily for us in the Elton world we've got somebody who fits everything I described above. From his journey to stardom, via the apprenticeship route, his ability to play with the best and in front of the biggest crowds imaginable. With staying power. Of course, Elton wears that hat very well but as this post is homing in like an over the speed limit pigeon towards the guitar you know it's only going to be about one man. Taking it as a given that all readers are huge Davey fans, I'll point this out to any waverers. The ones who dilly and dally over whether Davey is the real deal, then, now and in the future take this on board the good ship doubt. Stevie Nicks over a period of 30 years has chosen Davey to play on her solo albums. In her opinion, and who are we to argue, he's as good as the lead guitarist in the band she plays in for her day job. I'll leave that hanging in the air for the time it takes everyone to tune up and get those tones nice and smooth...

When I listen to Davey over the years I hear more than one guitarist, more than one musican. I'm not even going to go into his folk, roots or world repertoire. I'm going to stick roughly to trimmed guidelines of Guitar Star. He could have back in the day auditioned for all four categories and flew out with colours. His ability to play to the fore, aft and in tandem with Elton is incredible. If Elton is the heart, then Davey is one of the veins carrying the music to all parts of the body that are the fans. His harmonising through the various multi tracking techniques he's perfected whilst still allowing Elton to be the main man is truly unique. He found his own voice but never allowed it drown out those around him. Even when a second axe man was in the band rather than retreat to the standard rock star default setting of sulking he found new avenues (his electric playing post Caleb Quaye for instance had Alice in a wonderland and Bats in the belfry all agog to have him on their side) to develop and explore and when John Jorgenson came into the fold his rediscovery of the roots instruments helped bring Elton back full circle to his proper place. Even when an outsider entered the Elton recording world, Tom Moulton, he spotted instantly the hook that Davey's playing on record evokes and pumped it right back up to give the song that extra firepower. Like replacing machine guns with cannons, his sliding the fader up of Davey's guitar lines on Bite Your Lip for the 12'' remix in 1977 showcased his incredible slide playing.  

Fingers and other long bodily parts crossed we'll luckily have a fifth decade in which we'll get to hear another classic guitar solo or several from Davey on disc. If not, there'll be a stewards inquiry. More than the starting pistol will be fired from this end in somebodies pick one or two or a dozen favourites would be impossible. Every album he played on has them. What I want to do is show off some of cleaner sounding examples, without any major effects. Just the melody mixed with the power of message. So with Leslie amp off and the wah wah pedal undepressed, lets go for a straight run through.

I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)

This is one of the simplest yet fulfilling lines he's ever done. Emotionally riveting throughout, his solitary single notes are held tight. Almost dying off naturally, his timing is exemplary in bringing them back in. When he comes around again for the final part of it, he does the simple but nonetheless essential rock trick of just upping the notes and in doing so make the plea even more full of desperation. Why desperation? Read the lyrics, as Davey always does first, then you'll  see why he does what he does. He's being used a conduit for the cries of Bernie, being the added voice (alongside Elton) of the words. If it come's from the heart then the authenticity of it can't be questioned or denied. Finishing off with a slight degree of hope, the continuous unbroken spell he weaved for that brief interlude lives on forever.

A Word In Spanish

A while back I asked Davey on his blog what was the hardest solo he ever had to put down and this was the one. One of the most stylish solo's he's ever laid down, unamplified or not. The rhythm in this one is abundant, he's feeding off the lyric again to bring a flamenco flourish that isn't a cliche nor a pastiche. Rodrigo would be proud. Breaking this down from a pure technical standpoint, something on Guitar Star that they banged on about as to whether was essential or not, it oozes a natural charisma. Every time you listen back to it something new pops out. His fingers working the bass notes, seamless changes that need several listens to really get a better understanding of. You can hear his fingers just floating over the strings. It's neither forced or fake, again the heart input makes it genuine.

The two I've mentioned are just randomly picked, I could go and on about many more. All of them in fact. But before we go I just want to revisit one more solo, this time in the environment that ultimately separates the Heinz beans from the has been's. If you have stage presence then you can work the audience like blu-tak. If you can't then you'll sink to the bottom of the blue yonder. 

Have Mercy On The Criminal (live)

Anybody familiar with the 'people's chord' knows that one down stroke of it can drown out the most potent of instruments. But thanks to clever engineering which solved the age old trick of balancing on the point of a needle or in other words getting the balance between orchestra and electric guitar into some sort of reasonable co-existence, Davey was able to deliver one of his all time live solo shots. Making that connection between the music and the audience as one solid bind. As a complete contradiction to what was playing behind him, he just goes for broke on this one. Created by Davey (as are all his solo's), he slices through with the killer axe, slowly. With each swing he digs deep into the very heart of the music, the cuts opening wider as he turns back in on the song. Pure hard rock, the sound is loud, brash and nose to nose. Like embers spreading slowly, the heat is full of intensity even at the start of it. Subtle effects are used to delay and emphasise the crucial lines, at the very end as everyone comes back in and rises up he finds a route out of there that drops down and then vanishes. A star born for the guitar...