Friday, April 16, 2010

Elton's New Record Due Out October 19

Elton is everywhere this month. “Billy Elliot,” his latest Broadway musical, opened Sunday at the Oriental/Ford Theatre to huge fanfare and great reviews. Then, just days after locking arms with the Queen of Daytime Talk at the show’s gala premiere, he appeared Friday on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to chat up “Billy,” which he has admitted “still makes him cry.” Meanwhile, in perhaps his first step toward taking over the Simon Cowell spot on “American Idol,” as rumored, he will perform Tuesday on the televised fund-raiser “Idol Gives Back.”

In between all this activity, he’s touring the country with his “Rocket Man: The Greatest Hits Live,” which stopped Thursday night at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. (“It’s good to be back in Chicago after three days,” he quipped in his opening remarks.) Over the last decade, Elton devoted most of his stage appearances to the Vegas-themed “Red Piano” extravaganza and his “Face to Face” concerts with another legendary Piano Man. This time, he left that other Billy — Joel — back in New York. So this tour marks the first time in ages that local fans could enjoy Elton straight up, so to speak, without the distractions of the Angry Young Man or the high-concept Sin City frippery.

Joined by his stellar five-piece band, which includes venerable, longtime collaborators Davey Johnstone on guitars and Nigel Olsson on drums, Elton delivered an energized, nearly three-hour show that easily managed to rise above the nostalgia level by virtue of his peerless musicianship. And commanding showmanship. At 63, the Rocket Man appears to be having more fun onstage than he did back in his ’70s heyday when he relied on platform shoes, goofy glasses, glittery costumes and crazy antics to put his act across. Nowadays, he lets his music do the talking.

Thanks to the band’s extended workouts, the majestic sweep and grand ambitions of classic early albums such as “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Madman Across the Water” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” snapped crisply into focus. His muscular yet fluid piano style remains without equal in his rock/pop generation. Drawing on his extensive musical vocabulary, which includes country, blues, classical, jazz, gospel, New Orleans, Dixieland, boogie-woogie, prog rock and countless other idioms, Elton turned many of his standards inside out.

For instance, “Take Me to the Pilot” started with a long interlude that began in the blues, shifted to a kind of fugue, soared with a gospel crescendo and then settled into a Scarlatti-like sonata before he finally launched into the lyrics with a religious fervor. The echoes of his many influences — Professor Longhair, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, among them — resonated in “Rocket Man” and “Bennie and the Jets.”

He also saluted another of his inspirations, Leon Russell, who he called “one of America’s greatest artists” and added that “he’s been forgotten for too many years.” Mentioning an upcoming album, due out Oct. 19, that he recorded with Russell and producer T Bone Burnett, Elton previewed the track “Never Too Old” and called it “the best record I’ve made in years.”
As for superlatives, his voice remains as soulful and impassioned as ever. Though he doesn’t have the range of his youth and therefore has transposed most of his songs into lower keys, high-flying favorites such as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” actually sound better without the falsetto flourishes.

Sixty years on, here’s an artist still making a genuine statement. Songs like “Daniel,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Burn Down the Mission” resonate through time and continue to find new audiences (witness the all-ages crowd at the Sears Centre). Elton himself acknowledged this “circle of life” during the encore segment, when he sang that “Lion King” hit and told the crowd, “I’m enjoying myself more nowadays than I ever have — and that’s because of you.”

So here’s where we borrow a line from another ’70s icon, ABBA, and humbly reply: Thank you for the music.

- Suntimes

1. “Funeral for a Friend”/“Love Lies Bleeding”
2. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
3. “Levon”
4. “Madman Across the Water”
5. “Tiny Dancer”
6. “Philadelphia Freedom”
7. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
8. “Daniel”
9. “Rocket Man”
10. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
11. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”
12. “Take Me to the Pilot”
13. “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”
14. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
15. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”
16. “Candle in the Wind”
17. “Never Too Old”
18. “Honky Cat”
19. “Burn Down the Mission”
20. “Bennie and the Jets”
21. “The Bitch Is Back”
22. “I’m Still Standing”
23. “Crocodile Rock”
1. “Your Song”
2. “The Circle of Life”

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