In just the first 45 minutes — before a cheering audience that the center announced was 15,000 but law enforcement officials said seemed more like 17,000 — John dug into more hits than most stars enjoy in a lifetime, let alone in less than one-third of a concert.
They included "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "I'm Still Standing," "Levon," "Tiny Dancer," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and one of the highlights of this steamy Saturday night — an extended, hang-on-every-note version of "Rocket Man."
All this, even before the half moon had barely risen in Sullivan County's late-summer sky.
This wasn't the flamboyant, gigantic sunglasses-wearing showman of the '80s who Newburgh's Kristy Sanseverino — one of thousands of pre-show tailgaters — called "the original Lady Gaga."
This was John dressed elegantly in black tails, shiny purple shirt and tiny shades, with his plain black grand piano and a terrific band.
This was the 64-year-old singer-songwriter displaying the craft that's made him one of pop music's most enduring and entertaining artisans in a nonstop set that also included hits like "The Bitch is Back," "Bennie and the Jets," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock" and "Your Song."
John's voice — a bit huskier and a hair lower than on his records and augmented by four soaring, swooping female soul singers — is still rooted in the gospel-inflected blues that hearkens back to his pre-stardom days in England as a backup singer for soul acts like Patti LaBelle and the leader of his own blues band, Bluesology.
So, on tunes that clearly reflect those roots, such as "Levon," "Take Me to the Pilot" and a couple of terrific new ones from his collaboration with Leon Russell, John shapes notes and phrases with gut-piercing, goose bump-inducing drama, using pauses and silence for tension.
His often-overlooked piano playing also reflects his roots.
He blended bluesy boogie-woogie licks with an almost classical flair, often stirring up a rockin' ruckus but always sticking close to the songs that had the crowd — ranging from millennials to seniors — dancing, swaying and even gasping at a particularly sentimental favorite.
His five-piece band, including long-time drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, grounded and colored the music with rock-hard beats and pulsing rhythms that were so effective precisely because they never got in the way of John's melodic, heart-grabbing songs.
- The Record Online
Elton John — singer-songwriter, pianist, composer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, British knight — may be 64 and his voice may be lower than it was when he first garnered fame more than 40 years ago, but he can still let out — and I mean this as a compliment — the nastiest of pumped up rock snarls.
On Sunday night at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, his snarl came in an unexpected moment — as the finale of “Rocket Man.” The song had started 10 minutes earlier with John and his band — two percussionists, bass, two cellists, keyboards, guitarist and four backup singers — rocking hard while a light show flashed trippy images, including a rocket ship.
The song had brought the cheering audience to its feet, and led to a kind of boogie-woogie piano interlude that eventually returned to “Rocket Man,” only this time so much darker and more rocking that it elicited John’s memorable snarl.
Though John is perhaps best known for slower and moving songs such as “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Someone Save My Life Tonight,” all of which were played Sunday night, the heavy beats created by percussionists John Mahon and Nigel Olsson (an original Elton John Band member) reverberated through the crowd as reminders that even though John is a piano man pop star, at his heart he is a rock god who delves deep into the great themes of rock ‘n’ roll — angst (“Bennie and the Jets”) , alienation (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”) and yearning love (“Are You Ready For Love”).
When John veered from his hits, though, the energy at SPAC noticeably waned, especially when John and band played two songs from his 2010 album recorded with idol Leon Russell, “The Union.” “Hey Ahab” and “Gone to Shiloh” both carried a kind of cinematic Americana portentousness, though one highlight of “Hey Ahab” was the clear, strong soprano heights reached by backup singer Lisa Stone. Stone, by the way, is the daughter of Rose Stone, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from Sly and the Family Stone, who was also singing backup onstage.
Guitarist Davey Johnstone also deserves mention, not just for some of his blistering solo work in “Hercules,” but also his mandolin playing on “Holiday Inn” and his bright banjo work on “Honky Cat.”
The young cellists from 2Cellos — Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, who are known for their covers of pop songs — added plenty of vigor to many songs, but stood out wonderfully in John’s great masterpiece, “Your Song,” which ended the night.
Of course, John was the main attraction. And he didn’t disappoint. I have never seen a star of his caliber take a few minutes — just before the encores — to sign autographs for people in the front rows. Then again, he ended every song by jumping up from his piano bench and pointing to various people in the crowd and mouthing “Thank You,” and sometimes bowing.
So even though he still has mannerisms of a classic rocker, he has the gracious manners of royalty. Come back soon, Sir John.
Elton John and Band
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Route 50, Saratoga Springs
Length: Nearly three hours
Highlights: “Rocket Man,” “Your Song”
Crowd: Packed in the pavilion, wet and crowded on the rainy lawn
- Times Union Blog
BETHEL WOODS SET LIST
Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)
I'm Still Standing
Madman Across the Water
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Gone To Shiloh
Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Take Me To The Pilot
Are You Ready For Love
Bennie and the Jets
The Bitch Is Back
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me