In August of 1970, the rock critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times took in the sold-out American debut of Elton John at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood. His writeup was favourable and significant, perhaps comparable in resonance to Robert Shelton’s first review of a nascent Bob Dylan. “Tuesday night at the Troubadour was just the beginning,” wrote the championing Hilburn of John, then 23. “He’s going to be one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.”
Hilburn had it right. John, now 66, has more greatest-hits volumes (three) than most recording artists have hits (zero). He played many of those chart climbers – including Your Song, which would have been on his set list at the Troubadour – to an appreciative crowd at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
Later, recalling John’s 1970 premiere, Hilburn spoke of Your Song as a signal that the sixties were over, and that along with something like Fire and Rain by James Taylor, Your Song was the work of a new gentler breed, the singer-songwriter. “It was time for reflection and quiet,” Hilburn said.
And yet in Toronto, nearly 44 years later, when one would have thought it was again time for introspection, John was often anything but, even though his latest album, The Diving Board, is a stripped-down piano-and-vocal affair.
The show opened with crawling dry ice and the bombastic suite Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. It was terrifically brash and loud, matching John’s awkwardly fashioned sparkly house coat. Liberace had given away better garb to Goodwill in his day. And John’s slippers, on the grand piano’s pedals: A colour and make suitable only for skipping down yellow-brick roads.
Which is what he did, actually. He followed the tour de force opener with a brilliantly vamping Bennie and the Jets – “Hey kids, shake it loose together / the spotlight’s hitting something that’s been known to change the weather” – and the maudlin come-down Candle in the Wind. You seventies cats will recognize the sequence as the first side of the landmark album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
John is absolutely priming the pump for the rerelease next month of the 1973 double-album as a deluxe edition on CD, box set and even limited-edition yellow vinyl. He sprinkled the dynamic, barrelling performance with the lyrical, disillusioned title song and deeper cuts from the record as well: Grey Seal, I’ve Seen That Movie Too and All the Girls Love Alice, before closing the main set with Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ’n Roll) and a roaring Saturday Night ’s Alright for Fighting.
It was well past 10 o’clock, and John still wanted to rock.
He also wanted, we were told, to perform a song off The Diving Board. But he did not. “I was going to play a new song,” John said at one point, “but it’s a waste of time because you don’t want to hear it.”
I did want to hear it; The Diving Board is a great piece work, one that John himself called his “most adult album.” Instead he offered I’m Still Standing, a flashy grandstanding boogie which probably should be retired – John’s endurance and resolute stature is self evident at this point.
The Diving Board is about sitting back down. John’s voice has long lost its high end, and the original falsetto on Bennie and the Jets wasn’t attempted. His piano playing is a little more ornate on stage now than it would have been at the Troubadour, and he can still pound the keys like a mutha.
Good for him, but I don’t think that’s what we need from John at this point in his career. Forget the hopping and bopping and crocodile rocking. We need adult. We need, I think, reflection and quiet.
- Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
- Bennie and the Jets
- Candle in the Wind
- Grey Seal
- Tiny Dancer
- Holiday Inn
- Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
- Philadelphia Freedom
- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
- I've Seen That Movie Too
- Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)
- Hey Ahab
- I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
- The One
- Oceans Away
- Someone Saved My Life Tonight
- Sad Songs (Say So Much)
- All the Girls Love Alice
- Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
- Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
- I'm Still Standing
- The Bitch Is Back
- Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n Roll)
- Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting
- Your Song
- Crocodile Rock