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...