10/06/2014

Elton John: Crocodile Rockin' with the Rocket Man

Elton John, who is, undeniably, one of the most famous musicians (as well as being one of the most talented composers and one of the most colorful performers) in the history of rock'n'roll, came to the city of Portland, Oregon on September 25, 2014, bringing his durable collection of unforgettable hits to the stage of the Moda Center. Over the span of several hours, he delivered a thoroughly rousing performance, deftly comprising equal proportions of shameless flash, honest feeling, and timeless quality. The ardent fans at the Moda Center made it fully apparent that they were enormously pleased to be there, responding to the music with shouts of unbridled excitement and repeatedly rising from their seats.

Sir Elton John started in life as Reginald Kenneth Dwight, in Pinner, Middlesex, England, in 1947. He first displayed an aptitude for the piano at the age of three, and he received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London when he was eleven. During his teen years he performed in a local pub on weekends, and later played keyboards as a member of Bluesology, appearing in clubs throughout the United Kingdom. In 1967, he combined his ambitions with those of Bernie Taupin, a young writer from Lincolnshire, England, and began a musical partnership (with Elton composing the tunes and Bernie providing the words) that has resulted in the creation of a sizable number of well-known songs, from "Take Me to the Pilot" to "Honky Cat" to "Daniel" to "Someone Saved My Life Tonight."

Empty Sky, Elton John's first album, was released in 1969. It was followed, in 1970, by Elton John, which featured "Your Song," a graceful composition with heartfelt lyrics that soon became his first hit in the United Kingdom and the United States. With each album and each single that Elton John released in those fertile years, his name and his music reached more and more listeners. After Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a standout album that contained seventeen tracks (including "Candle in the Wind," Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and "Bennie and The Jets") spread over two LPs, was released in 1973, he soon ascended to even higher fame, arguably becoming, for a time, the biggest draw in the world. His recordings received constant airplay, his singles being heard on AM and his albums on FM, and he continually toured with his band, playing his songs to huge audiences.

From his breathtaking heyday in the 1970s, to his current renown in the 21st century, he has continued to hold his own in the public eye. Even in his early twenties, Elton John was, in spite of his avowed fondness for wearing outlandish outfits, a distinctly unlikely star, being neither tall or thin or handsome, and possessing a hairline that already was getting decidedly thin. Nowadays, at sixty-seven, he is, unquestionably, an older man, but he gives no appearance of being old. He is, instead, a comfortably stout character, sporting fashionable eyeglasses and a youthful hairpiece. Although age, bouts of illness, and private ordeals undoubtedly have affected him, he has retained plentiful supplies of both the offbeat charm and the easygoing manner that, over forty years ago, helped to push him upward to a formidable height of lasting stardom.

Elton John's performance at the Moda Center began with "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," the two tracks (the first blending into the second) that also opened Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. As the music commenced, a thick layer of mist slowly rolled across the stage, creating a ghostly mood. Next came "Bennie and The Jets," "Candle in the Wind," and "Grey Seal," from the same album, followed by "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," and "Holiday Inn," from Madman Across the Water. After "Philadelphia Freedom" (which, in 1975, climbed to #1 in the United States), "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Rocket Man," "Hey Ahab" (from The Union, an album recorded with Leon Russell in 2010), "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (a single taken from Too Low for Zero in 1983), and "Oceans Away" (from his latest album, The Diving Board, released in 2013), he finally got around to singing "Your Song," the gentle ballad that made his name.

The show proceeded with "Burn Down the Mission" (a prime track from Tumbleweed Connection), "All the Girls Love Alice" (featuring wild guitar from Davey Johnstone, who has been with Elton John since 1972), "Home Again" (from The Diving Board), "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (a single in 1974, taken from Caribou), "The Bitch Is Back" (also from Caribou), I'm Still Standing (another single from Too Low for Zero), and, to close the main set, a one-two punch from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock'n'Roll)" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" (with more wild guitar from Davey Johnstone), after which Elton and the members of his band briefly absented themselves from the stage, returning to speedily romp through a happy rendering of "Crocodile Rock." The evening came to a quiet conclusion with Elton on his own, sitting at the piano and singing "Circle of Life" from The Lion King.

In addition to Davey Johnstone and his guitar, Elton John was firmly supported onstage by Nigel Olsson (who first appeared with Elton in 1970) on drums, Matt Bissonette on bass, Kim Bullard on keyboards, and John Mahon on percussion. Although Elton's voice has lost the upper part of its earlier range, he still is a strong vocalist, and his celebrated musicianship remains sharp and fluid, his nimble fingers artfully pounding the keys of his grand piano with determined force and abundant skillfulness, as particularly heard during an extended workout during "Levon." (Unfortunately, the sound in the Moda Center was, at times, harshly loud and annoyingly muddy, impairing the warmth and the subtlety of the music to a noticeable degree.)

Only a rare handful of older musicians (Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc.) have been able to sustain the power of their stature in rock'n'roll over a long period of decades, and Elton John is, most certainly, eligible to be counted among them. He quickly established himself as a singular legend from the start, but, as frequently is true with born performers, he shows no signs of stopping or slowing his lifelong pace of dogged activity. Looking at him now, taking the stage with undimmed fervor and clearly thriving in the glow of the spotlight, a keen observer can discern traces of the chubby boy from Pinner who loved music and earnestly dreamed of succeeding as an entertainer.