Monday, February 8, 2016

'Wonderful Crazy Night - Bonus Tracks' - Review

Bonus tracks...or as the marketing people call them tricks used to get us fans to buy multiple editions. Of which I did, of course. As is the case the Far East market seems to get a track or two extra. By the wonders of modern technology and old fashioned generosity I now have them both.


A real bright and breezy track here, the percussion is fluffy and feathery. Like something scrubbing. Piano led mostly, Kim's organ line has that hint of occasional accordion (which appears at times on the rest of the album, mixed low but more than detectable) creeping in. Bernie's imagery is very strong here, heartfelt without any hint of cliche.


Lyrically slightly darker at times than the rest of the album, the mood of the lyric changes at the same time as the uplift on the chorus to take us back to the main theme of the project. Melodically very diverse, Elton's piano is more to the fore here. The occasional solo breaks that Elton does with that slow, loose drumming style from Nigel again are a treat as they aren't a common sound on the rest of the album. Another sound here that doesn't appear too often, if at all, is the almost Mellotron synth sound from Kim, orchestral in demeanor. The heavy bass sound of it conjures up visions of cello banks. This song would have sounded amazing with a real full string section. What does sound amazing is the traditional harmony sound to close out the final chorus with Elton's piano and Davey's guitar trading places. The final fade out is slow and lingering as the entire journey through the night has closed up shop.

Certainly No Monsters should have been on the main album for certain, it's a real candidate for the classic list of songs that never got to the main stage. In the old days of singles they would have been more widely available in 'hard copy'. But as well know there are ways and means around that now (not that I'm condoning that behaviour!)


Saturday, February 6, 2016

'Wonderful Crazy Night' - Review

***** (5 stars)

I've had many messages enquiring as to the whereabouts of JW&AT. Battery recharging is essential for any piece of machinery, I'm still refilling my cells as I speak. But the release of the new album has to be attended to, otherwise the momentous moment will be lost. Looking back to the review of TDB when it came out from this standpoint is like looking into a different world. One full of gloom, dread and chronic melancholy. Thankfully all that darkness has had a bright light shone in it's face, the heat has melted it and the light swept away the shade. 

During my 'regeneration' period I've switched off from nearly all internet 'so shall meeja' activity. No bad thing at a consequence I was immune to the steady flow of previews, insider reviews and cat call miaows from the sidelines. I heard the first three songs released officially, still called singles in this non-single day and age, but no more until I heard the album. No live tracks, no snippets. Like the old today don't have that opportunity unfortunately.

So, how do we take this review. Rather than leaving the punchline till the end...because the sharp ones will have guessed early on (unless they scroll down of course) where I'm going on this one...the album is a masterpiece of modern day expressive rock. Can't put it any simple than that. Starting lyrically outwards, Bernie is often considered never to be firing on all cylinders when it comes to the brighter side of life. However he's had a dose of Redex to get his piston pumping more exuberantly. Whatever their origins by the time we join in we're arriving at a point on the album at where they've matured to a delight. If there is any depth lacking it's more than made up for in vibe and tenor. Sometimes it's how you say it rather than what you actually say.

And this is where Elton sweeps in from across the plains. Because as Bernie's soapbox he is very much in 'This Way Up' position. Up being the operative word...if like me your head is done in with modern muses shifting supermarket trolleys of moany, drippy boring music then WCN is like said Redex being injected undiluted into your open vein. Prepare for billows of smoke coming out your exhaust as you put the pedal to the metal...


If there was ever a case of a standalone track being like a fish out of water it was this one. As an opener it has to be heard here and no where else. Placed at the vanguard of the album it's like a reportage of the album that's yet to be listened to. It's a preview and review all rolled in to one. The acoustic washboard style (skiffly in delivery, like England in America you could say as a later song title reflects). The jaunty out in the open riff has a swing to it that is tight and devoid and any loose swagger. Great opener here, Pink was right. The party has started.


Phew. This is a classic already, the riff may sound familiar but the instrumental breaks are incredible when they kick in. A genuine hook, the chorus has the same accusation held against it. Glassy organ has a crystalline sound to it with no opaqueness. Electric and acoustic guitars switch and glide into one another throughout, classic Elton drops the bridge down a notch before a slightly distorted guitar solo with a hint of sleaze infects proceedings. Brilliant! One of the most original things Elton has done in yonks and yonks.


And the originality keeps flowing. Like an invisble 'Chain', the acoustic licks at the start are underscored with a slight oriental technique. Small cymbals say big things, piano swims low but never disappears as they might say on the Orient. The solo has a Fab Four inclination to it, not the last input from that side of the world either on the album. The opening gambit is used to herald us out but not before a brassy escort speeds up our departure. 


When I heard this first the Drovers Ballad came into my mind instantly. Now I can't listen to either song without hearing the other. This isn't one of my favourites on the album at the moment, it goes a bit twee at times. In saying that it might be one of those 'growers', everything else on the album was almost instantly accessible for me. Oh well, moving swiftly along...


Remember I mentioned originality earlier? We're back on new ground again. The light brush work and Elton humming is a combo we've not heard before, have we? His vocal is dominant at the outset, carrying the entire song at this point as one of Bernie's genuine character's appears for the first time. Heavy drums manifest themselves on the chorus, the heaviest on the album so far, and contrast expertly with the verses. The production here is key, the different movements of the song are clearly demarcated. But behind all this intricacy is something simple. Evocative, slightly upsetting possibly, is the far off guitar lick from Davey. Sounding as if it's in another room or even another level of consciousness it's eeriness is at odds with the concept. Which is a good thing.


The opening is intricate in the extreme, but Nigel's trademark slow drumming at last appearing is like seeing your favourite character in a film come into shot. Proper order for a 'big number', Nigel's moment has arrived. And so has Mr. Burnett's. Finally 'getting' what a big Elton song constitutes and requires he brings his own style to the meal table and it becomes a feast. His brass section of choice starts off understated but grows in stature as progress is made. In spite of the ever gathering weight, Davey's acoustic solo carries all that might four square on his back. But we're not done yet. The final chorus has the French horn prominent; remember the similar moment on DLTS? It's here again and hasn't lost any impact or power of delivery in the intervening years.


See earlier review


Tubthumping handclaps batter the door down, there frantic pace once the door is open never lets up. Like the previous song the vocals are picked and placed like diamonds on an expensive ring. The guitar solo is raucous, brimming with frenzy and multiple layers of personality. The piano is ending is a style akin to Cold going into Pain...


...except this song is unlike the destination of that earlier example from Made In England. If the title hasn't given the hint then you know Ray is all over this one like a rash. 'Rasher' Ray takes the lead on a style that has that West Coast feel, high up in the canyon perhaps. Heavy organ from Kim, really closely recorded here, you can feel and hear the keys depressing and rising up with that slightly clicky sound they make. Bluesy solo from Davey is the perfect foil for the 'strum around the camp fire' undercurrent.


Pluck, you might say. Synth appears with a broad backdrop in a plucking sound, gentle percussion holds it all together. That is until the country infused solo when it beefs itself up. A restful way to end the 'regular' album, but that won't last forever if you're a de-luxer.


More Beatles hints here, the intro goes into a Lane that is styled and paved with Pennies. Harmonies dominate here too at times, the entire song in fact is one of the most Beatles influenced tracks Elton has ever done I think. Some really interesting piano lines appear.


Imagine Elton in the 80's that wasn't the real Elton in the 80's. Big hair (ooops) with an OTT sound. This is what we get here. Though popping his head in every so often is an organ lick that sounds remarkably like it fell off an Elvis Costello song, circa 1979. More than just an Attraction, the whole song is stadium rock brought into your room of choice at home. One of the heaviest sounds ever on an Elton album, driven by a relentless line from Matt, the backbeat is merciless in what it dishes out. Interspaced backing vocals stick their heads into the very few spaces that appear from start to finish. Slick changes abound but the appearance of tubular bells near the end is merely a cue to engage in more head shaking. Careful that big hair doesn't come loose folks...

That's the album, let's look at the main protagonists who appear on it. 

Nigel's drum sound is as near to the 'live' sound as you're likely to get represented on disc. The power is to the forefront but complimenting that is his usual unfussy but distinctive sound. Not to mention the wide and diverse compliments he pays each song.

Matt's bass sound is one of the main constant's throughout; if it were isolated it would tell two stories. One would be of power and might, the heavy side of his hand really drives the rockers into a rarely ventured power zone. On the other hand, so to speak, he throws in licks and melodious lines in the spaces that Elton leaves. Not for show but to give the ear something extra to nibble on during the main courses.

I'm going to link John and Ray here as one, not out of convenience but for a deliberate reason. Anybody who knows there Elton onions will be well able to separate what each of them does on stage at the MDP for instance purely by ear. Same happens here on WCN. Part of the listening experience is picking out who does what and where.

Kim on keyboards shadowing Elton on paper doesn't sound easy but rather being in the shadow he creates his own light and shade. Being brought up in a home that appreciated the Hammond organ sound I am more than happy to hear in it liberally spread throughout the whole album. Boxes ticked, loads of them on that count.

Anybody seen the new Star Wars film? Or the X Files return? Of course you have...if not, why not. If so you'll know why they work. No spoilers here but the main reason is the original stars are back, theme music and opening titles remain present, correct  and untouched. And the writing is strong. It's as if the gap of years doesn't exist. Same goes for Davey's return. It's not as if he's been away but over the last 10 years you can be damn sure he's had a myriad of idea swimming about just dying to be put down on tape. And now they're cutting loose. There's so many unique sidebars he's added to the album it would be impossible even to timestamp them. What he does do is what he was given free reign to do. Plenty of guitars and plenty more again. The balance between acoustic and electric is wonderfully divergent, as per usual on an Elton album he finds the right voice at the right time. 

I mentioned Bernie at the start because as is the case with these things his bit always comes first. He delivers what he was asked to do, lyrics that when coupled with Elton's melodies really spring to life off the paper. They aren't for reading, they are for listening to. And of course singing along too!

One of the main problems (among many) was the songwriting on TDB. This time however Elton has delved into his magic bag and produced something special. Not just once, not just a few times but all the way through. New hooks and distinctive riffs abound aplenty; there's none of the old rehashing of old melodies. The previous mishaps on the last album are a distant memory, fading quickly thankfully. 

His vocals are finely balanced all the way through, in fact the best of this decade. There's none of the cod dramatics or forced phrasing. Plain and simple is the best policy and it proves a triumph throughout. I read one comment that the album wasn't 'piano pure' enough. I take the other viewpoint, it's 'piano and band pure.'

Mr. Burnett, as long time readers of JW&AT will no doubt be well aware of, hasn't been a great favourite here. But I did say back in 2013, when we were younger...and funnier too as some might say...I would support him if he got the band back in and did a proper EJ/BT album. No faffing about, plain and simple rock and roll. Forget trying to be stylish for the sake of it, just do it naturally. And this is what we get. I'm almost certain, nay I am certain, he's never worked with an ensemble of this caliber. A group of supporting actors who are intrinsic to the end result. Here's why.

The remake of True Grit had Jeff Bridges and that was really it. A great actor but redoing a classic in the place of an icon is hard enough. But not having the same backup to make the main protagonist at ease and therefore free to express themselves is a handicap. John Wayne had Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Jeff Corey, Robert Duvall, Jeremy Slate for instance on the payroll. Not to mention Dennis Hopper, if you please. Part of the attraction that brings you in falls at their feet, once in you realise why they are there.

If proof were needed, not here anyways, but it proves yet again why the band should not have been ignored on the last two albums. Hindsight is a gift that we all possess, insight however is something that few can claim to have. The band have that about Elton's music, WCN delivers that from start to finish. The producer was cany enough to let the band get on with it and get on with it they did. The sound is as full and broad as you're ever likely to hear from any current artist for example. If somebody asks me what are Elton's best albums, I always go for the 'band' albums as a good starting point. WCN fits into that category seamlessly.

So where does WCN fit in to the Elton cannon? It's been fired and the bang has traveled a distance. Is it up to the 70's standard? I'm not going down that silly route, it's not fair to the old albums or this one. Even the albums of the last decade are from another era and have their own place but a lot has changed since then too.  What I can do is look at it in reference to the the T-Bone era. The Union is a side project in my book so we'll skip to The Diving Board. And then we'll skip again. When I started the blog one of the things I said was about perspective. From the standing position of now, the era of WCN, TDB looks even more disastrous. Is that possible, you better believe it. Listen to TDB and WCN back to back, its like seeing a Lada behind a Bentley Continental at the traffic lights. Embarrassing for the Lada driver being in such an old banger in such esteemed company, embarrassing for the Bentley driver sharing the same road as that rust bucket. 

Wonderful Crazy Night is the album that the fans wanted, the fans have got, the fans love. Make no mistake about this. When the dust settles the legacy of this album will have established itself. The big question is, do you leave it at that or go back for more. I'll take the cue from little boy Twist, please Sir Elton, can we have some more?!


Monday, November 2, 2015

'From Tin Pan Alley To Yellow Brick Road by Keith Hayward' - Review

One thing you can certainly say is that Elton has had many a word scribed about him over the years. Or in the modern way of thinking, tapped out...there's too few have scratched the surface. This time the veneer is lifted and what lies underneath can be revealed. More tell than kiss, thankfully.

When 'Tin Pan Alley - The Rise Of Elton John' by Keith Hayward came out JW&AT didn't exist so a review was not forthcoming. Here's a quick roundup of it though. Starting at the very beginning of Elton's musical education, both formal and informal, it charts that learning curve right through the Bluesology era deeply and stops just as fame began to come into view in 1970. Stopping off at points such as the recording of the DJM 'demos' and the first couple of albums (influence of Hookfoot on Tumbleweed for example) as you do. But that's only the basis on which the book was formed. Interspersed (as is the case with vol.2) was the background to the whole British music business; the characters who occupied it and the environment they existed in. The changes that took place from the early 60's onwards with the example of the whole in-house writing culture and how the singer/songwriter (for which Elton certainly accelerated the revolution) became the main focus is clearly documented. By those on the very inside, to name check the characters involved would be like a flick through a general musical who's who, never mind just those connected with Elton. If I say the names Paul Buckmaster, Stephen James, Steve Brown you get the idea. If you've not got the first book yet, get it. Though not reading it before volume two won't ruin the ending...there hasn't been an ending yet as far as I'm aware.

I remember the old England goalie Peter Shilton giving an interview a few years ago about his book. The interview was painful, it merely consisted of him avoiding answering any question so as not to reveal any snippets from the book. I'll not do a Shilts now...but what I can reveal is the bare rudiments of some of amazing insights that Keith has come up with. Just like the first book he gives some great information (again by those involved) for example to the side projects that Elton did especially in the early years, The Bread And Beer Band sessions in the first book is looked at and this time around the 'Saturday Sun Sessions' have more details revealed about them. They need a proper release at this time, any Nick Drake fan I've shared them with have been quite impressed with Elton's interpretation of his songs. 

But of course it's the that gargantuan march to the top and beyond in the early 70's that is vividly captured. There's a nice balance between the onstage and off stage antics. Both are key as they frequently influence each other as we'll see later. The narrative is broken up with contributions from direct and indirect Elton connections. Some of the direct names are speaking here for the first time in great depth; John Reid in particular comes across as been honest and with no ill will towards Elton. I still think on the whole he was a positive influence for Elton over the years. Annette Murray, widow of Dee, gives a terrific 'band' insight throughout as does Roger Pope who thankfully got his thoughts down before he left us so soon. Caleb Quaye, who has spoken many times open and candidly especially in his own book with Dale Berryhill, again tells it as he saw it. What did Crocodile Rock ever do to anyone?! Kiki Dee rounds out things from that angle, always associated with Elton but her own musical identity does shine through here.  Tony King, being a friend and fixer to all people of the music business, regularly appears as a conduit to Elton getting in contact with the real music heavyweights, the Lennon collaborations in studio and on stage being documented accurately here.

There's some great recollections from former colleagues of Elton's band, Davey in particular has some light shed on him from Noel Murphy of Draught Porridge fame. The folk influence as we all know stayed with Davey and seeped into Elton's music seamlessly and subconsciously. It's quite interesting to see how Davey had an almost instantaneous revolution in terms of the style he played to a style that came from influences he hadn't yet tapped into at that time, in other words rock. The discussion of his early electric playing is very insightful. It has been noted before about when Davey joined the band the dynamic changed in how they perceived themselves, though that wouldn't be the last upheaval as we'll see now.  

Almost at the end of the book we finally get into a part of Elton's career that has always intrigued on one hand and baffled me on the other. The removal of Nigel and Dee. I've made no secret of the fact on JW&AT that I think it was terrible decision from a music point of view. That's not being disrespectful to those who replaced them, it wouldn't have mattered who came in.Anette Murray recounts Dee's lament on that very fact plus the comments by Kenny Passarelli about Gus Dudgeon and his attitude towards him tells its own story. They had all recorded GYBR together, untoppable in some eyes, and then a year later recorded Captain Fantastic. Which did top it in some eyes. That's some progression curve, isn't it. Where they were on that curve we can only imagine. What they could have done next is truly astonishing to comprehend if they had continued at that rate. It's interesting to note that large vats of vintage alcohol and lines of devils sherbert dip appear from this point on. One of the most startling revelations is the fact that, wait for this, even Davey was out for a while. That's right, the entire band were gone. That's quite some concept to sink in if it had been seen through. But what is recounted afterwards in terms of how the studio work and live work seem to go further away from each other is telling too. 

Fleetwood Mac's Rumours came about as did the later ABBA classics from internal breakups. The Bernie/Maxine/Kenny Passarelli eternal triangle of the EJ band became an unforeseen muse. Kenny P. goes into detail about his relationship with Maxine and how it started, how her's ended with Bernie and how his relationship with Bernie was affected. It's not news to any longstanding Elton fan all this but when it's all laid out and put in context from the very people themselves in terms of how the music was shaped and affected that was born out of these complex relationships woes and ultimately perceived it adds depth. It's funny when you look at the post '76 era and how disjointed it all became. Gary Osborne appears sporadically throughout but at the end is in more detail and gives shape to that period in time where Elton seemed unsure of his musical footing. It was only when he started touring again with more definite purpose that his focus sharpened up.

And that's what you get in this book, depth. There isn't any hearsay, it comes from the mouths of some thoroughbred horses. Nobody bad mouth's Elton, I suspect even if they tried it mightn't amount to much. Much appreciated background to already known facts further build the layers that is Elton's incredible ongoing merry go round journey. This volume taken in tandem with the first one are now essential Elton books. Why do I say that? Because all threads of Elton's career are linked together in an non-opinionated way so that on the surface what looks like a vast canvas has been neatly drawn together to give a clear and concise look at Elton up to and including 1979. I look forward to volume three...speaking of vast canvas's the limited edition comes with incredible poster designed by David Larkham. This isn't his only contribution, he recounts some tales into the design of the various albums covers he was involved with. It's similar in concept the cover of the first book, it would have great as the cover of this edition. 

Davis Larkham designed and signed poster
Keith Hayward signed edition
Any new fans of Elton should get this book as it doesn't stray into any salaciousness and gives a wide understanding of how Elton's music came together and those who helped put it together. Older fans like ourselves have been given some new insights into the projects that were on the periphery of the main events, some of which are quite surprising.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Looking Up - New Single Review'

How odd can things be. For my next update I had planned to do a piece about a single from long ago...but out of the blue (thanks Ed!) the Elton world tilted on its axis a bit this week and the invisible fields of electricity above us have shifted. It's not true to say a brave new world has been revealed...more like an old world has been found under the ruins of the old one. Looking Up at us...Back to the day late.

When The Diving Board was released one of the many problems I had with it was the fact the band weren't on it. If you don't know why I had that problem, read back or row off. Not having the band involved was a major mistake. One that has since proved to be folly. I was right and all that. So the powers that be listened to the fans...and the response back is incredible. Not to put too fine a point on it, after one listen I know that the axis is now back on its proper level. Yep, that's right. All is now right again in the Elton world.

Elton's latter day recorded material had been a bag of old curates’ eggs and sold pups. I've not had that 'moment' with any new releases since Methuselah was almost a nipper. Plus it's been nearly ten years since I last had the luxury of hearing the band on a proper studio recording. A lot of water under the bridge since then... a lot of folks no longer with us. But we've got new lads in place. Or newish I suppose at this time. I'm taking a huge leap of faith here when I imagine everybody reading this has seen Elton sometime in the last few years. So you know what I'm talking about when I mention the energy, the verve and the guile the band bring to proceedings. Capturing that is like dueling with lightning, seizing it by the throat and bottling it. But that's what's happened here. Lightning is full of heat, light and power. The new song has all that. 

Starting with a flash and ending with bang is the ideal description of lightning. Looking Up has that all the way through. Electric (of course) piano, with a mean and dirty tuning to it, acts like a pre-emptive flash before the actual bright light of the acoustic piano announces itself. Listen to Nigel's drums as they kick in. Full wide sound, the toms spread out as far the ears can hear. Proper Nigel sound, and of course he can rock. The introduction to the riff is incredibly simple here; uncomplicated its effect hangs like the aftershock of a strike. When it does explode into something more intriguing its power further lights up with the layered guitars of Davey. More on those later. Authentic Hammond from Kim emerges from the dust of the explosion, like sirens calling out for listeners. I'm listening, so should you. The culmination of the bridge with its slight piano extension at the end steadies itself before nasty guttural guitars disrupt the ions and then set about destroying the remaining EMF. Davey's solo like a cross between his best work on Made In England, Dead Ringer and Rock of the Westies. The fade of the carefully managed piano chord at the end almost on a par with how we came in, rattly percussion from John full of electric tingle. Spiky hairs all round...

What have we learned? Where do I start? Imagine not having your favourite dinner...or favourite partner...for a while. In my case it's been a long time...for this type of Elton music. The last dinner was hot and so was she...I've been waiting for this day to come and was sort of anxious as to what it would sound like. Hence I avoided any speculation, some of the reports I've read emanating from the vaults have been off the mark; now I've had the luxury of hearing this wonderful single. As a first release this is as devastating a statement of intent Elton has had made in a generation. One of the reasons is the fact he's finally released an uptempo number. We know he's capable of delivering said style, Joe and Josephine Public are kind of oblivious to such a notion. So they'll be dusting the cobwebs for a while yet. We've seen Elton on stage, especially since 2010, really up the ante in terms of delivery and consistency. But more importantly take the hard edge and make it front and forward with everything else four square behind. Now it's on disc. The live sound of the band (point to be made here, there's no such thing as studio band or touring band, it is the EJ Band) has been crystallized in over 4 minutes. Bit like that warning we grew up with in the old days...its driving bass with subtle melodic hints by Matt regularly striking through isn't clichéd or recycled. Because Elton has strayed away for this style a lot in recent years he has plenty of room to play with in this field. It's a huge park and Elton and the band has knocked it right out with first pitch as they say over there. Over here I'm saying we have a whole album of belters to be batted!!

I know I've been hard on Mr. Bone but with good reason. He ignored the band on two occasions. It was too ludicrous for words, the absence on TDB made no sense when they had to be taught the songs to play live. So baffling a concept even a blind man could see it coming, even old Tom. This time that folly has been routed. He's let the band in, without much direction I suspect (old dogs, new tricks and all that) and just let them get on with it. No fool acting around with styles and moods, just plug and play. Plus he's opted out of his normal muddy style of mixing and production. It's as if an engineer with clarity of ear twiddled the faders and let the music be expressed cleanly and clearly through the mics. The drums sound like Nigel's as only his can. The snare is purposeful with minimum of delay. Elton's acoustic piano and Davey's guitar are routinely never at odds with each other, they step and dance around, occasionally meeting but never colliding. The rhythm guitar is strong too, the continual appearance all the way through makes it's an authentic 'rock' track. 

Elton's vocals are clear and blow away the canard of Elton's uptempo vocals being a pig ears at times. He brought home bacon here...he gauges himself around Bernie's words (lyrically analysis another day) without any hint of them running nose into rear. Subtle uses of one of Elton's many tools in his box, his harmonising, interjects with fresh regularity

Make no mistake here. Elton has made a latter career-redefining moment on disc. The stereotype and cliché which manifested itself from TDB has been crushed. Forever. Dullness is now light, slowness is now running and oil lamps binned with switches set to ON. If you read my reviews of TDB everything I said that Elton and the band could do on disc has been accomplished. In other words, the powerful energy and knowing ability that very few musicians walking this Earth have in terms of dealing with his music have been utilised. That's not some sort of brainwave from the boffins, that's common sense. It's a shame it's taken so long for the penny to drop but we're quids in with the amount that have fallen today. I think this may be, nay will be, the career-defining latter day Elton album. TDB may have had dreams of that but it's been put to bed. In a catacomb deep in a crypt. Like I said earlier, one listen and I was hooked. Not always a yardstick but look at it this way: when he does these songs live the unknowing crowd will be zapped in their seats.  The songs will sound exactly as they did on disc. No loss of quality in delivery terms or authenticity. That's why the 'live' life of the new album will, I suspect, be a major focal point of the 2016 and beyond setlists. 

This song sounds fun, the live shows are fun. Elton is awake. The band is awake. And this fan is WIDE AWAKE!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

'Do You Want A Piece Of Elton's Piano?'

You know when you're at Elton concert right up the front and your hands are flailing for whatever may be flung from the stage? Whether it be picks or sticks we're always grateful to get them. But the main man, due to the nature of his power plant, can't throw pieces of it willy nilly at the audience. The insurance wouldn't cover it for a start...but now there is a chance to own a piece of it. You want a piece's how.

I've mentioned before on this blog about how Elton's piano's are subjected to the most severest of tests night after night on tour. They never flinch but once in a while an upper cut is opened or in more technical terms a string breaks. Not a regular occurrence due to excellent maintenance of quality machinery but when they do reach the end of their natural life they now have a good home to go to. Maybe even yours.

Traci Loving of Imagine Loving Art, friend of JW&AT and artist in residence for the EJ Band, has created something unique and a collectible that hasn't appeared before and is unlikely to appear regularly in the future. Traci is an artist of exceptional taste, her range of Elton related items, not to mention items of other rock artists, is well known at this time. Whether it be hand crafted jewelry or drawing and paintings. How high up the appreciation ladder has she reached? Next time you're at or watch the Million Dollar Piano on DVD then check out Davey using the 'Mandolisa' on Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatters. Yep, she designed and painted that. 

I'm pleased to say I own an item of Traci's and would recommend her work to anybody and have done so many times. Because of her connections to the main man she has been granted access to the old wires and rather than have them chucked into the bin marked 'to be melted down' she's put her skilled hands to work and come up with this amazing piece of work. High tensile metal that has been woven to create a necklace, the centre piece being one of Davey's many colourful guitar picks. Kind of appropriate that both musicians tools have been blended together to seamlessly create another tendril of art in a similar manner as their music relationship has existed for 45 years or so.

This rescued string has been taken from one Elton's many tour pianos. This is from 'Kay', Traci has all the details about it on her listing in the links provided. So when you're wearing it around your neck and if you listen carefully then you may hear the faint trickle of a note long since died but like the stars in the night sky will keep on shining forever. Because it certainly has some tales to tell, if it could sing. Sing it didn't but play it did and because we don't get the chance to own something that has come from Elton's workbench too often, if ever, then the chance to own this may not come along any time soon. Yamaha's terrific expertise in keeping the show on the road testifies to that.

Traci has created a simple yet iconic looking design, the wire itself is the main facet of the design and speaks for itself. The red, white and blue guitar pick adds some tasteful colour, almost at the heart of the piece. The 'Elton, Davey' relationship characterised very dramatically hurry up and get it while you can. It may be a while before before the hammer hits...too hard again!

But the good work doesn't stop here...and here's another exclusive for JW&AT. She's already raided one of Nigel's old cymbal's and chopped them up into baby cymbals. As you can see from the picture she has laser inscribed his 'Little Bloke' logo into it with incredible accuracy and detail. Some will have be done on one side whilst others will have a Nigel on both sides. Like his double kick drum...these will available very soon in her store as a pendant with a gold chain. I suspect these will be highly sought after, Nigel does have large following. 

Traci has conjured up some incredible original designs, who would have thought the band throwaways would be recycled in such a cool way. To rework the old phrase, reduce, recycle and rock on!!

Related links:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

'This Ain't No Disco, This Is EJ!'

D.I.S.C.O. Five letters that changed the music business forever. From the use of the hi-hat to the redundancy of countless live musicians the world over. Beginning with it's origins in the gay clubs of New York in the early 70's to the good people of Chicago quite literally blowing it into smithereens at decades end there's a positive pot pourri of characters, vibes and influences swirling around. Positively dancing they were...and dancing in around the sidelines was Elton of course. Like anybody who is unsure of foot then it's best to guide rather than throw all sorts of achievable shapes. Or at best just take some of the moves and use them to one's capabilities. But if you go on the dance floor to throw said shapes and your training has been of a more classical persuasion then the results will never be satisfactory. As we'll see later on.

Without going through chapter and verse of how disco came to be, the basics are fairly simple steps to follow. The funky, slick side of soul was used in the NY gay clubs of the early 70's in order for the community to strike a degree of independence. The clubs became a meeting point and ultimately the focal point of the movement. Starting with Detroit soul and then with the sounds other US cities had to offer it became a national, ultimately worldwide phenomena. The groove being one, not the most, of the important ingredients. The development of the use of the hi-hat became intrinsic; a far more expressive backbeat could now be achieved. A relentless rhythm that was essential for any driving force on the dance floor. But on top of that was the 'sound' and that was achieved by using the very best musicians to be found on the continent.  

Motown had always prided itself in using the very best in house vocal and rhythm sections. But as many of the songs called for a lavish orchestral arrangements then session players had to be called in to fulfill those requirements. As was the case in Detroit and subsequently in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, LA, Seattle and the other major urban sound purveyors. The string and brass players from the major orchestras in those cities were called upon to be scored by the best arrangers in each of those cities. One day Boult or Solti would be swaying the baton over them, the next Gene Page could be leading proceedings. Arrangements that were smooth, confident and vital to the music. And unique to each urban centre in order to provide a separate identity. Twenty years earlier Nelson Riddle had established the blueprint of popular music arranging,, then Lieber and Stoller combined string arrangements with r n’b and everything was set in train. A soul train perhaps.

'The Cause Was Right'

With that base established we'll now look at how Elton fitted into this ongoing change. Initially he was a participant who was well aware of its origins but wasn't aware of just how big it was going to be. Certainly in the summer of 1974 the fuse had been lit and running alongside was Elton recording a landmark stand alone single that paved the way for the crossover. Certainly if you listen to Philadelphia Freedom on its own it is indeed one of the classic 45's of the decade, regardless of its style. The sound is truly unique for Elton; notwithstanding the fact it was recorded in LA instead of Caribou. Hence the fact is more claustrophobic on disc, a deliberate ploy by Gus maybe. Its sound seems to emanate from a dance floor, you're almost hearing it at the door rather than at the DJ's desk. That sound is impossible to replicate live, when expanded it loses that shrunken intensity. The heavy backbeat from Nigel, with snare under tom and to cap it all Ray battening it all down with tambourine. The intro by Nigel on hi-hat is again interesting here, his clever use of it being the future disco motif ploy. Elton's vocal is wildly imaginative. As I’ve mentioned before, his harmonising with his own lead vocal is as good anybody in the field. Jumping from deep expressions to almost feminine reposts behind the main lines, it's as if two different people are singing. Funky electric keyboard also leading the charge. But the key of course to all of this is the arrangement by Gene Page. Huge bright strings, at times all at one on the melody line then the basses and cellos separating and leave a heavy undercurrent on the instrumental breaks as the violins repeat the same strikes over and over. Between the spaces of vocal lines they are incredibly vocal in their expressions, the rest of the time they are bang on the rhythm. Loud brash brass (always a forte of American composers and arrangers through the last century or so) again have a wild range of moods, flute solo to French horn blast. But it's not pure disco, thankfully. Davey's smothers it with his heavy rock guitar, his handling of the riff and the lead lines are never compromised or shunted to one side. The marriage is indeed unique, the sound is timeless but has enough of the groovy elements like the rhythms of soul, the rich orchestral backing coupled with rock infusions. Next step would be bigger and bolder but ultimately the dance would never be completed.

'Work On A Spell'

By 1977 the disco was ablaze in an inferno of popularity. Commercialisied and ultimately the soul origins had been bastardised. Authenticity was getting harder to find but Elton decided to nail his colours with a true originator of the genre, the results that we have are mildly spectacular but ultimately the unfinishedness of the project is clear to see. I've mentioned many times here before about Bell's influence on Elton’s vocals, this time I want to look at how Elton fared when he met up the MFSB and bought lock, stock and barrel into the Philly soul which itself had been taken lock, stock and barrel to Seattle.

This type of sound works best when it's up tempo. That's when the magic is delivered, a constant backbeat with a pacey melody on top. The opening track form the sessions, Nice and Slow, has to be looked at, lyrically first. Taupin, almost certainly on purpose, has presented a covert sexually explicit lyric which at the same time can be interpreted in a more morally neutral viewpoint. The concept of sexually explicit messages being delivered in such a 'cosy;' manner is a disco trademark and it's all over this one here. So it seems the sound is not only tumescent...the slick production at times threatens to stray into a sound that is too soft (where's Davey when you need him) but in saying that the undeniable charm of the melodies carries the day. Mama Can’t Buy You Love and Are You Ready For Love being clear cases of that, both hits decades apart in different regions for differing reasons. Are You Ready is probably the masterpiece here, the simple but effective backbeat and lead vocal switches between Elton and the Spinners interjected with jazzy style closed trumpet only tell half the story. Three Way Love Affair’s opening riff having a nod back to where this style of music began, one of Motown's biggest hits being sound checked. Certainly Elton stayed on the right side of the disco line here, at times he did threaten to stray into a more 'softer' sound but close guardianship on the production (his vocals are excellent here) meant it maintained a large degree of credibility. But of course rather than see out the project with Bell in early 1978 he waited...and waited...until the timing was completely wrong. So wrong that by the time he reset his watch across the Atlantic he short circuited it. And very nearly his career.

'Why Did I Have To'

Timing is everything in music. By the summer of 1979 Elton's timing was like a clock that fell under the spell of a magnet. Quicker than you could say vorsprung durch technik he popped over to West Germany for an afternoon's jaunt and put down some vocals. If he done it for the speaking clock it would have been of more beneficial use, seeing as his watch was out of commission. I'm not going to waste anybodies time, let alone mine, to go through Victim of Love. It's fit for dumping, all of it. A sink hole deep enough to bury every last copy hasn't been sunk low enough as yet. By this time the aforementioned good folks of Chicago had taken over the ball game and burnt disco down in its own inferno. But that’s only giving the album an out for its dismal chart failings and its awful legacy. No matter when or where it was released it would still be rubbish. Even the so called champions of the European disco wing in Munich couldn’t do anything with it. An endless uninterrupted backbeat that by the end of the album Bellote was name checking one of his older hits in desperation such was the paucity of originality. And even that couldn’t carry the day...the opening was a flop so it was downhill after that. If you can make Johnny B Goode sound third rate then the sessions should have been halted there and then. But studio time was paid for so on they ploughed with the synth nightmare. The entire electronic landscape sounding like something with as much as soul any life form would have several hours after the four minute warning had been called Luckily we don't have to continue with it. Elton must have realised his error pretty quickly and before the three legged pup saw the light of day he had encamped to the south of France to write and record with the other late 70s, and far more credible, influence ultimately shining through on the proper recorded material, New Wave.

If the 70's were indeed the best decade for music then disco was the blight. Very quickly it's roots were forgotten as the scramble to reduce to it to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of cash. The term sold out is used like snuff at awake but it was indeed the ultimate prostitution in music. Record companies up and down the planet churned the garbage out left right and center until the law of diminishing returns kicked in. As I alluded to earlier, the era of the live band was severely curtailed. Rather than paying for a live band to pitch up, the cheap and cheerful alternative of a DJ and his back of vinyls to mix setting up became the norm. As it is the 21st century. 

Thankfully Elton really only flirted with it, and when he did spend an afternoon delight it was such a bad experience for both parties it has ultimately been forgotten. If it had been a success then it would hung around for all the wrong reasons. But Elton is always at his best when he plucks elements of his fancy from genres and turns them into his sound. Philadelphia Freedom being the case in point. Thom Bell sessions stayed the right side of the line...Munich was indeed another in a long line of disasters associated with that city.

Monday, September 21, 2015

'Elton & Band @Rock In Rio 2015 - Review'

It was reported recently that Brazil was still in a state of mourning. Due to the recent incident where their football team left the stadium during the first half of an international match. The semi final defeat by Germany over a year ago my have punched a hole in the hearts, but Brazilians are quick healers. Full fitness restored, they're back in the game and samba(ing) to boot.

Elton showing a clean pair of heels
Anybody who saw the recent festival shows in the US over the last year or two will not have failed to notice the inertia of large numbers of the crowd. Age demographics or just a plain dose of being 'quite blase into the bargain' as Fred Trueman might have said possible factors. None of that down Rio way. Take note further up the continent. I've mentioned before on this blog how the South American fans are a pretty unique bunch. The music, with no other baggage, is to the forefront. What an appropriate place to unofficially start the dropping of the curtain. Last time in Rio and all that jazz...the three 'Rock In Rio' sets he's done in 2011 & 2013 culminating here and now are classics. Clocking in at would you believe 90 minutes this final act in the treble has bookended the two earlier volumes.

Before anything happens we heard Davey kickstarting his Flying 'V', like a motorcycle with a sticky kick start. Once off and running, Elton power kicks with no mercy. The Bitch Is Back gets the Brazilians up and at 'em. Sound is from the proper 'mix' so the piano encoats everything. The jam on Bennie positively sheens here, Davey takes a more authoritative lead on guitar here also. Speaking as Elton often does with a 'local' accent, the band voices show no signs of any influence of the dialect. The backing vocals on Candle In The Wind aren't so much stitched together, more like weaved with no obvious stitching visible. Levon as it crosses the touchline from song to jam has a terrific waver of the arrangement from Kim, an up and down movement. The added dips and quips are a foretelling of the jolly riffs that Elton expounds just a moment or several later. John's Amazonian accompaniment on conga's unites all elements of the culture. Occasional distorted guitar from Davey criss crosses back and forth over Elton's piano lines until the eyes and ears...the unbroken tendrils of nearly 45 years...combine, twist around each other and get into the groove. Nigel, never one for the messy drumming style, shows that he can get down and dirty just as good as the filthiest of them until he clears up his own mess and slaps his trademark stamp blem all over proceedings.

Philadelphia Freedom tonight has a leap out moment. I've been eulogising (not sermoniing, I'll leave that to the more self righteous) about how good Matt is. But listening in the small hours as it was here, he gave a positively sublime performance here. The song has loads of space; its time and it's pace leave plenty of room for a musician of his calibre to be heard. But anybody can be heard. But not everybody can do what he does. Every time he spots a gap in the defence he dances in and weaves around avoiding all the tackles. His fingers fleet of foot. Some incredible bass playing here, it will need several listens back to garner exactly each and every move he accomplished.

But then the hush descends, a kind that is normal down there when the striker steps up for the crucial penalty kick. Breath baited abounds, Elton's measured and deliberate step up to the keyboard and his progression through it. Like said runner, he gathers pace and as pacey as any winger he still has the technique in his armoury to throw in a shuffle to deceive the goalie. Back of the net! The outro is like a victory run around the stadium. The world is certainly the cup...but the cup has to be filled. 

If you want to intoxicate a Brazilian crowd anything with unlimited proof won't match Skyline Pigeon. If Elton didn't do it, then he'd be like Frank Sinatra in Australia in 1974. Locked in until he broke. And boy did it break. The band version of Skyline Pigeon I could listen to all day. Along with the massed ranks of Brazilian Eltonites. Hymnal in origins, the rhythm section with added tasteful twist as a later modification is a wonderfully weighted combo. It's an emotive moment; the empathy between crowd and performer as Elton announces it's the last time he'll play it in Brazil is more than tangible. It's audible as it's sung. The local dialect discarded in favour of the latter day Pinner phrasing. Is this moment important? Come back in ten years and you'll know how significant it was.

With the game won, it's time for the mazy dribbles. Sad Songs is foot on the ball time, roll it around and then stroke back and forth. I'm Still Standing with Davey on Epiphone for a change...last seen on the song in the same indeed the victory chant for team and fans. Long after Elton had left the stage, the crowd were still pumped up by Saturday Night but left feeling nostalgic with Your Song. Two facets of the same face. Elton had left the Rio stage...but the Rio audience will never leave Elton.