At one point in music history, mellow and understated were two words you would not normally associate with Elton Hercules John.
However, times change, and the flamboyant ways of Captain Fantastic have given way to a more laid-back, if no less supremely skilled, performer.
That was in evidence Friday night at Moline’s i wireless Center as John presented a fine, well-performed, but, yes, mostly chilled out show for a sell-out crowd of close to 11,000.
Let me state a few things up front, because I can already hear the torrent of John fans burning up my phone and e-mail lines with complaints about this review based on my first few paragraphs.
One, I realize that John has evolved as a performer and he’s long since put the costumes in mothballs. I’ve seen him many times over the course of my concert-going life. I’ve given him rave reviews, decent reviews and not-so-decent reviews. As an entertainment writer, I’ve followed his career and know where he is now. I’m not expecting him to rehash the days when he would show up in a Donald Duck outfit.
Two, I’m not knocking the performance in general and I’m certainly not saying anything derogatory about John’s musical ability. Music-wise the show was fantastic.
But three, it’s my job to describe the concert and give my opinion. And no matter how huge an Elton John fan you are, you have to admit that, for about the first two hours of the show, it was pretty austere and classical. Very well done, yes, but also very stripped-down.
The stage set-up was solid but unspectacular, with three video screens (two showing John and his band in action, the third displaying simple abstract images that matched the moods of the songs) and a nice, but relatively basic, light set. During the time I was at the show — I had to leave early because of deadline pressures — Elton had no costume changes. And the pacing of the performance, with John sitting at his piano and rising to happily and politely acknowledge applause after each song, chatting intermittently but never at great length, was in line with something of the MTV “Unplugged” oeuvre.
If you were looking for a blow-out rock show, this was not your night.
Now, on the other hand, if you were looking to hear a brilliant, just-the-music rendition of John’s hits, you were very much in luck. John’s piano playing was dexterous and sumptuous, his voice is still expressive and strong and his catalog still sounds great.
Full of attitude and sass, “The Bitch Is Back” slapped up fans, particularly a few energetic dancers in the front row. The wan “Tiny Dancer” was accompanied by the glow of dozens of cell phones and the sounds of hundreds of voices echoing the chorus.
Lush and expansive, “Believe” wrapped the crowd in its warm, melodic embrace. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was welcomed like an old friend, and “Daniel,” buoyed by a chiming melody and jangly guitar, got a similarly amiable response.
The glossy harmonies of “Rocket Man” soared amid falling stardust piano notes and the song broke into a meandering, bluesy, spacey trek that elicited whistles, cheers and finally a standing ovation.
Bittersweet and beatific, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was triumphant, sparkling with sugary harmonies, muscular keyboard work and a majestic finale.
Just before I had to jet to meet my deadline, the pace picked up as John smashed out a bucking, blustery “Bennie and the Jets” and poured it on with a frenzied “Philadelphia Freedom.” If I had to venture a guess, I would say things continued on the up note through the end of the main set, then followed on into an encore that likely started with a ballad and ended with a bang.
Different people have different expectations coming into a concert. And when you’ve been around as long as Elton John has, had as diverse a career as he has, and amassed as many fans as he has, you’re likely to get people coming into your gigs with a diversity of anticipation.
Those people who wanted two hours of excellent mid-tempo and ballad piano tunes topped off with a rousing finale were likely incredibly satisfied by last night’s show.
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