Thursday, September 26, 2013

'Live From Bestival 3CD Set - A Review'

ELTON JOHN LIVE FROM BESTIVAL 2013  ***** (5 stars)

A very nice way to start the week when this popped through the mail. Concert Live who recorded the European tour shows in the second half of 2009 have returned and captured Elton's headline set on the Sunday night on the Bestival main stage, Isle Of Wight. The package is a 3 CD set with printed discs and fits into a neat cardboard 'digipak'. Featuring 1930's style art deco designs, the packaging is flashy and bright. Much like the sound on the disc, the sound has a shine on it that is clear and sharp. Mixed well, the vocal crowd...and how vocal they are...are blended with the stage sound with perfect balance.

The show opens with the 2Cellos doing there 'thing', the crowd chorally accompanying them on Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then they cut straight into Highway To Hell with John Mahon sliding in and adding a pounding backbeat. Just before the close of the number to signal their sets end, Davey Johnstone emits a bolt of electric lightening to rock it out...and then rock into The Bitch is Back. No nonsense intro, take the crowd by the scruff and shake them to their vitals. Playing to a festival crowd is a challenge for any artist, spotted on the field are here tonight, gone later tonight type clientele. But if you get it right you got them for life. Did Elton get any lifers after this one? You're damn sure he did and none will want parole either.

The setlist was up tempo, attitudinal with no hint of over confidence. Grey Seal, the first of many non-hits that didn't have anyone spending a penny, mixed funky with spunky to give a hunky groove. The break on the outro featured a deep holding bassline from Matt Bissonnette, who is really putting his stamp on several of the songs. Not only staying true to the original parts, he's throwing in shapes and colours into the improv areas that are a great addition to the sound. On Philadelphia Freedom he has a very expressive touch and a nice tone on a song that requires such an input. Brilliant.

Interspersed with the album cuts are the hits. If you don't do hit's, there's no 'hit' for the crowd. So when Elton lashes them in the crowd go bombastic in their singalongs. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road showing why it's one of the most popular singles of the last 40 years. Even if you don't know it, you know it. Hey Ahab after 3 years in the setlist is still holding steady, but as per any song with Elton and the band, they always keeps developing during it's lifetime in concert. Davey throws in some new licks...where does he keep getting all these new parts to play of the best riff's of the last few years fully developed to full growth, the jam on the outro with the 2Cello's and the percussion thumping is hardcore heaven. When Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding starts up, you can feel the tremble in the crowd. Those who are virgins having such a thing thrust at them are at once apprehensive and giddy with excitement as the magnus opus unfolds before their ears. By songs end tremble has given way to all out uncontrollable vibration as the Elton and the band rock the Isle for many a mile. 

I'm Still Standing before it's even a few seconds old already has Elton 'yeahing'...why is he in agreement with himself? Because he now knows he's in one of those 'moments'. Of which there's been plenty of in 2013. I should know, I saw one of those 'moments' earlier this year. Pulling a big one out of the bag, he nails every line of it with tremendous vocal and finger jabs. The crowd are delighted to take such hits, the expected ones and unforeseen ones. But something unforeseen, a hit with a great knockout win rate, suddenly lands a punch out of the blue that has the for the rewind button. As the outro drew to a close after Davey's blazing hot solo, Elton stopped the jam and bayed the crowd like the Gladiator he is...and the crowd like lions roared back at him 'SATURDAY!!' Rock and roll ain't dead yet...thank God the music is still alive!!! One of those simple inputs but nonetheless a spellbinding adrenaline inducing capture. 

But as unexpected as simple a turn on a familiar song was, an unfamiliar song was expected as the new album was to be promoted. Home Again with it's stripped down band brass, no choir...just the band and singers uniting as one to allow Elton the space and time to ready the crowd for departure. The cleaner arrangement allowed the beautiful piano solo on stage centre to flourish and bloom. But the crowd must depart and they took their cue form the opening notes of Your Song...'you can play it Elton and we're gonna sing it'. And sung it hard they did, when I listened to it I focused on the crowd as if they were the lead and Elton was merely the backing. A role he gladly took up with gusto as he brought proceedings to a mutually satisfactory end.

Elton bowled the crowd over. The performance was mythbusting, stereotype smashing and cliche crushing. He displayed supreme confidence to play to a 'non-Elton' crowd and with that strength of purpose to throw in so many album cuts and a new song. And every single one went down a storm. Mixed in to that already heady cocktail of Tales Of The Unexpected were the surprises and variation twists that can leave possibly even Elton surprised at how he can keep doing it. This Concert Live CD is a must have, it's an excursion through Elton at his playful, determined and energetic best. No MOR here, just R n' R...for life.

'The Diving Board - A Final Word'

Well done to Elton on getting  to #3 on the UK album charts and to #14 on the same chart here. This update is to coincide with the album being released in the US...all 5,673 versions of it. The reviews over there range from wildfire to wildly off the mark. Somebody needs to put sense back into consensus. This update is the final word on the album, an overview if you wish. Where we are now compared to where we were. One footnote before I make my remarks, this is to remind people who keep reminding me as if I have an information deficit. I know the why's, where's, who's, what's and when's of the album. Quoting me back the press release is not news to me, thanks all the same.

First off Elton's vocals and piano are excellent. As if they wouldn't be. Like I said on my original review, the album started good but in the middle started to sag and by the end had collapsed into a MOR nightmare. Voyeur has sort of improved for me but still lacks the finished article aspect. I wonder why. For me the better songs on it have stayed strong. The re-invention of the wheel was cited for this project. To me, round has always worked. But it seems not very desirable in 2013. I would have thought that when the band got hold of the songs they would have improved them. In the case of Home Again, Mexican Vacation and Oscar Wilde Gets Out this is proved to be true. However Can't Stay Alone Tonight is still bland, a poor DNA relative of Turn The Lights Out When You Leave. Which begs the question if the band had played on it would the album have been better. Moot point now, I think.

I still give the album 3 stars, only because of the strength of the better songs and for Elton's piano and vocal. But those great elements are let down by the poor songs, some of which are too awful for words at this stage. Dull, uninspired songwriting with some boring melodies. With elements of previous more successful adventures. Most unlike Elton I have to say, there's always one or two passengers on an album but I think a lot of stowaways hid on Board...and didn't Dive off. And in doing so threw some legitimate passengers over board. Candlelit Bedroom and 5th Avenue should have been on the album. See my post below on those songs for further details. Whoever made that decision, I suspect we can all guess who, didn't do the album any favours. The fans have been strong in their opinion that one or both of those songs should have been there. The view of this blog is that maybe Elton should have performed some songs live since January 2012 (when the initial batch were recorded) to gauge public mood and reaction. If a fan doesn't know, who does.

Now for the controversial bit. Or as some would call it, a personal opinion. It's this blogs view that the producer has now served his remit. He delivered The Union and The Diving Board as per Elton's wishes. He has tried to turn Elton into something he's not, an artist who you can pigeon hole and bracket. Elton is Elton, you can't pin him down exactly what it is he does. In trying to recreate this 3 - piece idea, we kept getting referred back to Tumbleweed and Madman, not to to mention of course 17-11-70. But we were told of course it was supposed to be a different album. So whilst it tried sit on two stools, it has dived between the two. What Elton needs to do now is tell the current producer that the band must be on the next album, in order for the producer to have a challenge. The challenge being to get a proper sounding Elton album out of them all again. If the current producer wants to do it, I'll back him 100%. If not, then thanks for the memories and lets move on. And find a producer, like a Greg Penny or a Pat Leonard or a Matt Still that know their Elton onions and can pinpoint in the dark what and who goes where on an Elton album. I've exhausted my views on the current producer, unless he and Elton can get the band back into the studio, the albums are always going to fall short. That's the opinion of this blog and will remain so.

Elton's 'Englishness' in his music and Bernie's 'Americaness' in his lyrics was the first thing that the US heard and instantly wrecked their heads. Reviews at the time described at them as 'that weird hybrid of Brit blues rock groove-meets-American twang on Tumbleweed Connection' and Madman as the 'English strings meets American steel guitars'. But now due to time and geography, Elton has become to all intents and purposes an 'American' artist. But in doing so I feel his roots have been lost so some extent also. The album lacks the 'fun' factor. The Union, not one of my favourites, has that much needed wittiness to divert the mood and feel. Leon brought that to the mix and no mistake, Hearts Have Turned To Stone being the obvious example.

Whatever spin you put on Elton being 66 is up to you. 66 is not old today, look at poor Roger Pope. Gone too soon. Elton onstage sings and plays with the swashbuckling swagger of 26 year old, but on some of the songs on the album he sounds 106. Maybe some of the older fans like this, as it makes their own aging process run concurrent with Elton's. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid. If you listen to any recent live show, the review of The Bestvial CD's on this blog will stand good testament to that, you'll know how full of rocking energy he still has. None of which is on this album. To me that's a great shame that his vitality onstage is not being channeled in the studio. The 17-11-70 analogy was a joke if truth be-known, listen to the full performance of that night and you'll hear slightly accentuated manic playing with softer moments mixed in. We got the softer parts, in droves, but the uptempo excitement bit got mislaid. I don't expect him to rock out the whole way through, the lyrics here wouldn't allow that in the first place, but surely the producer, if he's as good as we are told he is, surely must be able to come up with that little extra bite to give that edge. Elton albums have always had a good mix. When they didn't like on Peachtree Road, where there wasn't a whole tonne of rock out moments, but still had plenty of drive and verve to make the listen distinctly more enjoyable than this one. A whole lot better... 

Which leads to another controversial moment for some. So if you're one of those fans that has no interest in who appears on stage or on albums with Elton, them look away now. Because another personal opinion is coming this way. The album of course suffers from the band's non-appearance. Read my previous posts below on the matter, they explain this in greater detail. No apologies here for saying that. I mentioned the removal of certain songs from the album, the editing process. Someone to make the right decisions, the tough ones. Same can be said about the qualities and the creative elements that the band bring to the table. When I say band the meant the current band. Not the past, but now. The 2012/13 lineup. Stick to today, if you can. The creative spark they share and the ability to bring it to the studio environs was sadly lacking. But it's Elton's gig, he can do what he pleases. But remember, we buy into it so we are entitled to our tuppence worth. If you read Davey's blog, his words about not being on the album sound painful. I feel his pain. Again, if you're not interested who plays what on an Elton album then that point will go over you head where as it goes to my heart. The appalling labels of 'stage band's and 'studio band's, intentionally or otherwise, is both misleading and insulting. All members of the current band, both with Elton and with other acts, have proved their worth in both environments. So to infer that the current lineup is only fit for doing the same songs over and over, night after night,  is wide of the mark. As in you aimed for Earth and hit the moon. The question you have to ask yourself, would the 'studio band' (see, even I'm at it) be capable of doing a large arena tour a la EJ band. Bellerose on drums in a stadium...yeah, right. I'd pity those in the middle rows and further back. Because you wouldn't hear much. The 'stage band' (doing it again) in the studio, hmm, let me Davey mentioned on his blog the other day, he (and Nigel) played on all the big hits. Case closed.

To sum up, does TDB have it's place? Of course it does. It's not a bad album, but it's certainly not the wondermint that some people talk about. It's probably the start of a new era of albums in this vein, for me the last proper EJ album was CATK. I've taken what I can from The Union and from this one. The mantra I keep getting hurled at me like some press release from TASS is that this is something Elton wants to do. Like I explained earlier, I got that t-shirt (not quite, I'm still looking for a TDB tee). More power to his left foot and both hands I say. Long may he continue to go into the studio and whip up some more classics. Because there are a couple on this disc, it's just a pity we had wade through the other stuff to find them. Like wading through Quicksand you could say...but to me in 2013, Elton onstage is still a far better bet now. He's still has that power to enthrall, excite and surprise. Elements that are not on this album I'm afraid to report. 

One issue pertaining to my initial review was acceptance of peoples rights to express an opinion of the album. Which I did so here. I consult many Elton fans worldwide, through Facebook, email and in person. All views, all the time. But what some people fail to acknowledge, again whether it be on purpose or neglect of thought, is that they must accept we like something they don't and vice versa. Over the last couple of weeks, my review was frequently misquoted, misrepresented or most likely misunderstood. What motivated those actions, they only know. I had a view about the album before it came out, but another canard that frequently rears it's ugly head is the charge that I stated the album would no use because the band weren't on it. Not the case!! I stated, and you can check back if you wish, that the songs on the disc would not be as good as their live counterparts. Get your facts right!! I stand over that claim now, in fact vindication is mine. A straw poll of live versions over studio versions will kill that argument stone dead. 

Last words now, I enjoyed the process of listening to the new album as I always do, a new Elton album is always a treat, though this techno age had kind of sullied the buildup. I've put it to one side now, I will return to it later myself and see what's happening with it. Before I go, I want to alert you to the best 'fan' review I read about the album. If I say the name Jim Turano, that introduction will be enough. His honest, frank and forthright piece is a tale of how many fans (including yours truly) felt when we first heard it. When you read his insight, be warned it's long but well worth the trip, you'll find that even the great and the good in the Elton world have different opinions to the next man or woman. Thanks to my friend Jack Rabbit too for providing Jim with the platform to express his standpoint. As for me, I've said all I'm going to say about the album, Elton likes it so...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Supersonic King'

Like all us Elton fans, I'm a very sonic reactive person. The sound, without stating the bleedin' obvious, is the main food and drink of our addiction. So no surprise then we all react with varying degree of emotions when we hear either a new Elton sound, as we have recently, or the old sounds for the umpteenth time. Each time is different, but still has that familiarity. Because Elton's albums over the years were recorded with such precision and care that Rolls Royce and their glass of water on the engine philosophy would be jealous of, we've always had the very best sonic experience. Well, 99% of the time. On the odd occasions that the sonic boom didn't quite travel, they didn't quite hang in the air as the best examples did. A topic for a future post.

As will be all topics on this album. A multitude of them, because there are a multitude of avenues to go down with this one. But today I'm going to focus on the listening experience. What I hear and how I hear it are important. Clarity and forthright expression are the key traits of the album. The lyrics evokes it, the music describes it. But focus for a minute...or the length it takes to play the album...on what we are hearing. I had this on again for the gods know how many times, and the first thing that struck me when I first heard it is how clear and precise the sound is. Incredibly fresh even today, in 1975 it was at the cutting edge of sound delivery and presentation. Helped by the best recording equipment of the day, but that only being the conduit to channel through Elton and the band at the height of their combined powers. Years of recording and touring together had culminated in the second guessing of each being the correct option, the only option. Each element knowing what the other wanted and being able to intertwine it with their own choices. It was wrote...and they then they played it.

The album is loud, Gus said so at the launch of it in 1975. The loudest at that point in the catalogue. Not loud noisy, but loud with triumphant and joy. Bernie's lyrics, some of if not the best he's ever written, need that empathetic sonic delivery to match their straightforward, no nonsense message. Wonderfully mixed, without any flashiness or effects laden tricks. Elton's voice is described as being like chocolate now, but here's its like caramel with some added nuts. Smooth layers with an underpinned crispiness. And the layers are the ingredients that make the sonic treat full of flavour, bite and luxurious after taste. There's plenty of space on the record, plenty of space after all the toppings have been added. Because each one is a vital ingredient. 

We're transported under the drums skins. Each thud is a bulls eye. Each strike of a cymbal with wood is the double top. Minimal used effects on the drums sounds only broken up when a sound like a production line at a factory marches in. The toms at times vary from full sounding fills to barrel lids being hammered tight. We're transported into the guitar amps. Each strum, pick and lick is clearly stated and felt. Rootsy one minute to bluesy the next. Aggressive Les Paul's to friendly Fenders with a chirpy, almost cheeky chatter. The bass not only linking the drums and lead like a sonic rope, but leading with as much vitality and validity as it's up front counterparts. When you hear a bass note delivered, it's a lump that hits you in the throat. One that hangs around. We're transported into a percussion ensemble that is not a wallflower, but a flowery surround on the wall of sonicness. It finds its space, holds it and owns it. The instrument choices are key to the lyrically shifts on expression. The words speak and the instruments back them up.

But most of all we're transported under the piano lid. And into the amp of it's electric companion. Because both instruments are key on the record. They're both rich. Have a classically sounding delivery. And have a powerful up front statement. The key to this success is the mixing, the breakup of sound that the two instruments provide. Both on their own and together. You listen through the album and you know you've heard the two sounds. But for a moment you have to think exactly where you heard them. The precise moments. Because the thought through of the album concept is one long story with each chapter, the thought through of the piano reflects that idea. 

The switching of the sounds, either during the transitions between tracks or during tracks where both appear, gives a consistent yet vital breakup in sound. They appear, take the reins or sit back as and when. Which is crucial when dealing with Bernie's lyrics. Their mood and feelings change, again not only from song to song but during songs, so that tone has to be reflected. Helping them to be heard. All the elements on the album have a home and a role in that house. Each element appears and disappears as and when, some like the strings and brass are only called upon for a special visit. But the sound has a general consistency throughout while having an inconsistent flow. That sounds like a contradiction, but it's a device that's used to transport us through the album with familiarity but never losing the surprise element. The sounds both uplift and steady us. The vocals are key again, especially the backing vocals. They rise up in formation, with wing tip to wing tip closeness. And fly a tight display. Glorious.

To sum up, I've not discussed the lyrics. Or the musical influences. Or even the production techniques to a great deal. What I've described the aural impact, how the various ingredients sound to me. Everyone has their own vision in their minds ear. What I hear is the zenith of delivery of the band and most importantly Elton. The very best went into the writing and recording of it. The final journey is its delivery and the ultimate cornerstone of the building up of the layers. And that is where the impact is felt most. You can be certain no half measures were employed for the final everlasting journey. Piece by piece each tier is built upon for a tower of power of song. Even now as we speak, the final fade out is still being sung out in the cosmos...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

RIP Roger Pope 1947 - 2013

Roger stamps his foot purposely and waves his hands majestically right from the start. His tight, straight ahead patterns tempered with his broken rhythms are as required as the song switches from an even keel if calm waters to storm lashed frenzy. He has a tremendous feel of the changes in the song, the instrumental breaks are steady with a breezy flourish. His footwork is a major feature, right up in the mix for maximum impact. There's nothing messy on this track, his driving finish on the outro is straight ahead rock and roll. His huge sweeping fill at the end on the concert toms a trademark of his style. 

Roger has left a tremendous legacy, his work on Empty Sky, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water, Rock Of The Westies and Blue Moves as important on those albums as the rest of the contributions. All diverse albums, all diverse sounds and all diverse drumming required. Whether it be written out or just a groove that he tapped into, Roger always put down a suitable line. His effortless switches from powerhouse to laid back essential for Elton's music. He could rock like bad 'un, but still had light of hand to layer a ballad with choicey subtle moments. Never overplayed, always clean and direct. 

He had a great rapport with the fans long after he'd left the Elton building. Always a good trait in my book. I send my sympathies to his widow, the newly announced Mrs. Sue Pope.

Top 10 essential Roger tracks

Empty Sky
Rock And Roll Madonna
Ballad Of A Well Known Gun
My Fathers Gun
Tiny Dancer
Holiday Inn
Grow Some Funk Of Your Own
I Feel Like A Bullet
One Horse Town
Crazy Water

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Not Only...Shakespeare's Men Got All The Lines'

Bernie is probably second, possibly on a par with Shakespeare in terms of creating characters. Real, imaginary or a mixture. The ability to see through the eyes of a stranger, think their thoughts and walk a mile in their shoes is a unique talent. Bernie has that in abundance. On this blog I'll be looking at the many characters that he's foisted upon us willingly over the years. Today's example is a classic one.

When Bernie wrote this he was still a teenager (early 1970). But with his incredible knack, not quite psychic but with the same penetrative technique, of being able to enter the mind of somebody, three or maybe four times his age is a gift. Did Bernie bump into a character like this in a pub in England around that time? That we'll never know for certain. All we can do is speculate. And art being what it is, multiple interpretations are always possible. The main character, the Old Soldier, if it were indeed based a close encounter, would surely be a veteran of the First World War (1914-18). At that time he would be in his early 70's and looking around him at the changing times, peace love and all that other stuff man he was no doubt seen as a fossil. The conversational structure of the song, young man speaks, old man speaks in alternate verses makes the song flow along like a play. Almost script like. A mini screen play that says so much in a few verses than a whole feature could do.

Elton for this one takes the basic approach. Piano, voice and his in his own clever style and the ability to make Bernie's words sound like his words. Some may say the solo interpretation is no more than demo. I disagree. A demo is merely a run through, a track merely to demonstrate the basic premise of the song and as an example to build upon later. However, in this case we move beyond the demo stage. Because Elton has put the final touches that are needed. The phrasing and pauses are all crucial to the telling of the tale. By instilling those emotions into his voice, we hear the story from both sides as if we're listening in. The verse starting with 'I know what they're saying son...' is where the anger, despair and downright hopelessness of the Old Soldiers situation is there for all to hear. Because we are listening in.

His piano is playing again is extraordinary  when he reaches the lyrics just mentioned he ups the pace slightly to hammer home the point then stops and leaves the space for the thought to sink in. Deeply in this case. The final fade out of music and words are both poignant and ultimately without resolution. The Old Soldier cannot find nor will be able to find peace, the younger man consoling him trying to understand but not being fully able to appreciate the Old Soldiers predicament. The only thing he can he take from it is to be forewarned for his own future, whatever that may be.

Talking Old Soldiers is one of those songs that because the lyric and the melody are as strong as rocks, nothing else is needed on top. You couldn't imagine hearing that song now with even the smallest amount of embellishments. The strength is it's message, construction and delivery. If the writings good, then you've won the experience well known by the Talking Old Soldier....

Saturday, September 14, 2013

'The Diving Board Bonus Tracks' - A Review

5th Avenue 8/10
When it first emerged, people quoted Burning Buildings in the same breath. A lofty comparison, not quite in the same bracket but certainly can be seen as something from the same gene pool. Burning Buildings is one of my all time favourite Elton songs, a glass and a half of quality in that one. Steady piano is the main driver here, bass line notes lingering not a million miles away from the sound on Breaking Hearts. The drums actually have a sound here. Oh the joy! Bernie on top form again, the lyric a cryptic reference to social decay. From the top downwards. The race to the bottom...the bridge is eerie almost orchestral, I could hear (in my mind) strings and brass on that part. This song works from beginning to end.

Candlelit Bedroom 7/10

This one is a novelty. A welcome one. We can actually hear an electric guitar. And wonder of joys, a guitar solo. The delightful addition adds the much needed break up and disruption of sound (see full review below for more), you know you're hearing a different song. The different (for this album) sound catches your ear first, after that everything falls into place. Another strong melody, not overplayed or underwhelming. It mightn't be the greatest thing ever written, but it has that hook, the aspect of being not of the 'others' on the album that makes it a curiosity worth investigating for alone. Bernie's longing love lyric is tempered with a hopeful melody.

Whatever the whys and wherefore's of the Diving Board, I'm sure from everyone who has heard these two bonus tracks, 5th Avenue and Candlelit Bedroom will agree they should be on the 'standard issue'. Whoever, whether it be an individual, committee or passing tea lady, decided to omit these tracks did the album a great disservice. And an even greater disservice to the fans by restricting their availability. Simply put, it's the Mandalay Again syndrome. Again. (I tried to fit Home in there, but it wouldn't work!) Both these tracks are Elton being Elton, strong melodies with no pretensions. And Bernie being, Bernie. Social commentary and love going ball ways. And a slightly more open approach to the production. I have a feeling he can do if he wanted to...

'Across The Great Divide'

With the 'Trident Studios' era over, Elton had crossed the great divide of the Channel and pitched up in a chateau in France to continue his spiral upwards towards world domination. Kind of a reverse leaping of the Maginot Line. What came west across that front wasn't quiet. Honky Chateau was in the can, the first of the band albums. And number ones. A complete change from Madman, the yin and yang you could say. Davey having got the gig due his insightful and broad range he stamped over that album. The show at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst not intended as such, was a wave Goodbye and a wave hello to both side of the divide. Elton sitting in the middle of all this, not since Holy Moses had someone stood between such vast scape's.

The 1971 concert at the same venue with a session orchestra under Buckmaster's control had been a success by all accounts, but as such little evidence exists of it, precise details are sketchy. This 1972 edition featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It seems though there was some tension between Buckmaster and the orchestra, the arranger/conductor reporting that they (orchestra) were difficult to work with. Incredibly surprising that, they being such professional musicians. Not only that, in September 1969 they premiered along with Deep Purple the concerto for group and orchestra under the baton of Sir Malcolm Arnold. An incredible piece of work, truly groundbreaking in it's day and was almost the starting gun for such live works that followed. So they had plenty of experience of hooking up with the rock fraternity.

The show was essentially divided into two sections, the great divide. The first part featured Elton, Nigel, Dee and on his debut, Davey. Elton dressed in a sparkly purple top, the band in the typical early 70's setup of all being in a line across the stage. The empty chairs of the orchestra adding a strange arty setting of an audience sound being present but visually being absent. Not intended, but in hindsight looks as if it were staged that way. The only songs we have from that part of the set are the ones released on the 60th birthday DVD a few years back on the bonus discs. 

Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatter's

Honky Cat
Rocket Man

The 3 songs stick faithfully to the basic studio versions, as would be the theme of the night. Tight, polished as if they had being doing them for years. But this was their first appearance too, only having being recorded weeks earlier. Elton's piano has a gorgeous sound, a harsh undertone with a smooth layer of warmth on top. Eton's voice at this stage was in it's groove. It being able to for see what Elton wanted and phrased each line immaculately. It bounces around like a controlled bungee rope. Davey's plucks his mandolin with sharp stabs. Dee's bass is expertly handled, his clever use of the volume controls are simple but essential. Moving in and out, up and down as the shade of the song dictated. Mona Lisa's being clear example here. His bass notes at the start of Rocket Man are simple, iconic but in a few chords have become a sonic standard of the highest quality and everlasting legacy. Nigel's big drum sound, the concert toms filling the air like the timpani perched up behind him. His footwork on Honky Cat is extraordinary, his holding and releasing of notes in time with Elton's piano crucial in welding and flowing of the whole thing together. Wonderfully recorded, all instruments clear and mixed perfectly. No compromise on sond, we hear what we should hear. And want to hear.

The we had a strange situation when Nigel and Dee were then lifted offstage, their equipment removed. They were sent to the stands, not with a red card but because of the nature of it being an orchestra show and Buckmaster wanting to conduct it as it he arranged it, in other word's all the parts from rhythm section out, they had to sidestep for this one. Elton changing into a white fluffy cuffed number, he truly looking like the concerto maestro in his attire. To accompany him and the RPO are essentially Blue Mink. Ray Cooper on percussion, Barry Morgan on drums, Herbie Flowers on bass and Alan Parker on guitar. Madeline Bell and her distinctive voice shining through joined Nigel and Dee in the rest of the singers booth alongside amongst other Leslie Duncan. Barry Desouza (drums)and Chris Laurence (acoustic bass) adding an extra rhythm section for a heavier backbeat. All these people onstage representing the cream of the Trident years, apart of course from the missing Caleb Quaye, Roger Pope and their fellow Hookfoot luminaries. But the presence of Davey was now the way of the future, he played on Madman but he was now part of the setup and his arrival would herald a change in direction. And fortunes. Him being onstage the link across the great divide.

The following are the only songs from that set available on the bootleg CD, Philharmoica Freedom.

Your Song

Take Me To The Pilot
The Greatest Discovery
Sixty Years On
The King Must Die
Indian Sunset
Border Song
Madman Across The Water
Burn Down The Mission

Your Song opening with Elton's American twang evident on his phrasing of the title, not surprising considering his numerous tours to that part of the world by that time. Deliberate or merely a rub off from the environment. Either way, it works. The woodwinds bright and prominent, an often ignored part of Buckmasters repertoire. The Greatest Discovery with the big brass shouts at the end are a classy finale. 60 Years On with the creeping up creepy strings, the acoustic guitar the touching, almost plaintive balance. The woodwinds on the final part, an extra part added to the arrangement for concert purposes, chattering away in the background. The King Must Die with it's light electric guitar and heavy percussion from Ray adding a both shades of colour. Indian Sunset like the rest, sticks as close as possible to the album version, Chris's heavy acoustic bass booming with a smooth feel. Border Song and it's heavy bass strings on the solo with a hard almost guttural sound, the soft backing backing vocals on top eventually rising up...Holy the middle of the great divide. Madman Across The Water has the orchestra as manic as the lyric and melody. Wonderfully replicating one of Buckmasters greatest scores. Burn Down The Mission, whilst not having anything like the energy, excitement or variable moves of Elton's live interpretation of that time, it still doesn't go out with a whimper. Herbie's heavy bass lines and the two drummers and percussion are like twin motors driving everyone along in front of them. Ray's conga beats, using a hollow sound to broaden the impact are a sign of later moments onstage with Elton. The energy is a good one, a different one, a one off. Goodbye being the final song, may seem like a metaphor. But it's that thing of perspective again. Elton was saying Goodbye to the Trident days, the written out rhythm notes giving way to the band interpretation of the songs. Unbeknownst, he had already recorded a number one album. So the time was right, the time to cross the great divide...

This show should be fully released on DVD and CD. It was wonderfully filmed, Elton payed for it himself so it should be good! The sound is impeccable, carefully mixed with knowledge and taste. It's an incredible mix of the early '70 to early '72 period of work. Which is a terrific mix, you hear all the best songs from that time performed live almost exactly as they were recorded. No compromises, no gaps. The show is historic, and totally unique. Very few concert performances by any artist in the 70's were filmed to this degree of quality, simply because the cost was prohibitive. It's a great shame this one lies in a tin can somewhere on a dusty old shelf. 

I have featured a clip of Tiny Dancer that is not on Philharmonica Freedom but is on the unofficial DVD release. The quality isn't great, but as you can hear has some unique parts. When the bass and acoustic guitars kick in there's no drums, vocal and piano to the forefront. When they do come it's on the bridge to the first chorus, it's that extra embellishment over the way Elton changes that are vital to the song's mood. The strings and vocals rise up for the chorus and then descend again with he long lingering heavy notes of the strings dying slowly. The final chorus whether it be solo or with a cast of 100's never fails to deliver. The outro of just strings, bass, acoustic guitar and piano is amazing. The strings gradually float up as the familiar riff finally fades away...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

'Elton In Concert On BBC Radio 2 - A Review'

The BBC Radio Theatre, the scene of a tremendous showcase by Elton of Songs From The West Coast in September 2001. A dozen years later and he's back for yet another new one to show off. And show it off he did...the following is based on the audio broadcast of the show. Being outside the UK meant vision was impaired for, or more precisely non-existent. But aural is Elton's main job...

The Bitch Is Back opened up with slap hard blood thrusting momentum, any doubts about Elton's current condition left in no doubt when he exclaimed I'm Better Than You. After all his ills, the full MOT has served him well. Bennie had thunderous percussion, like marching machines. Matt's bass was witty, as was Elton's vocal. Davey throwing in some 80's style riff's, string flexing on the outro with pumping bass culminating in an explosive ending. Tiny Dancer, one of the most iconic intro's now I think, introduced itself to soothe the sweaty heads. And hands. Elton piano always dances on this one, the words hypnotise it do so. The weeping guitar, the 2Cello's chomping at the bit as they tick over nice and steady. A lovely deep bassy backdrop. Elton's vocal impassioned on the final chorus. As he said later, He loves to sing these songs. This way he does this one shows he likes it better than quite a few others. 

Now the new stuff, and what good picks they take from the album. The choices were proved right since we've all heard it in full. Kim's wave samples, sounding like restless real breakers on Home Again. They have a haunting and eerie quality. Davey's guitar loiters with intent, a tasteful intent. The 2Cello's and percussion gradually emerge from the swell, adding vital colour to the scene. The backing vocals, angelic but not preachy. The Royal Academy brass whirring. Nigel's trademark slow drumming fresh on a new song in 2013 as it was before I was even born. It hangs behind in close proximity, when needed it steps up to be counted. The piano and cellos are at one on the melody, the buildup on the solo is gradual, but as per usual the payoff is immense. A killer moment when Elton's vocal tips the scales to full. Not overweight, but muscular. Elton then explains how he writes the songs...I'm not making this bit Oscar Wilde Gets Out is next to emerge. Ballad to mid tempo, pacing the key here. The thumping melodic intro, wistful cello's and the popping licks give this one a distinctive sound. The chorus is almost a sound scape based on a merry go around as all the band unite. Kim's humming organ, switches to low clavinet on the bridge, Elton's deeper vocal change perfectly accompanied by the snappy sound. The banjo replicates the melody impeccably, why wouldn't it? The sound of a Dubliner's instrument on a song about a Dubliner. Insight is a great thing...the band bring that to these new songs. 

Goldy oldies re-appear, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, one of the all time great singles, as well the album, sounds 40 years young. A bit like myself...the soaring vocals, not just from the band, but from Elton first and foremost are knitted together with harmonious glue. Nigel's harmony vocal is prominent, his sweet voice with Elton's baritone an intoxicating concoction. Rocket Man with it's lung expanding, chest swelling intro is a riveting moment. His hanging onto the notes, letting them die with aching beauty is a showstopper. Thankfully, it doesn't. A classic telling of the classic song graduates with a dreamy, twirly outro. Levon then has Elton again with a cavernous sounding vocal, dark and deep as said cavern. Kim's glistening organ with Davey's guitar rasping on demand, with screams ordered in occasionally from the same commander. The bridge to the outro is one for Tata Vega to preside over. She along with the rest of the singers get the band under orders and they're off into rock and roll romp. Elton's 66 in human years, but in Elton years he's half a century younger. No growing old here, he's just aging racily like the mad dash he leads. Throwing out piano licks like a card shark, and holds them just as tight as said card dealer. Elton and the band are tight as a stacked case we never knew, Elton is indeed Still Standing. This a pacey end to the show, moist harmonies just as luscious as Elton's vocal on the final chorus. Better than he ever did?! You better believe it. That MOT he had recently has given the classic model a new lease of life. Saturday Night starts with a juddering sensation, the 2Cellos string bending the perfect reply to Elton's loose, breezy vocal. Matt's bass moving with equal fluidity. The outro is grinding like a precision tool for core drilling. The rolls on the piano brushed aside by Davey with a wailing attack from the axe at the end. Your Song is one for the road, the nostalgic feel of it has no hint of melancholy. Closing out a tight snappy set that had no time for breath to be caught. Plenty of time to breath when your dead...I think!!


The Bitch Is Back
Bennie And The Jets
Tiny Dancer
Home Again
Oscar Wilde Gets Out
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
I'm Still Standing
Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting
Your Song

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

'The Diving Board' - A Review

THE DIVING BOARD *** (3 stars)

Here we are, the day has arrived. The drawbacks on this high tech, fast information delivering world in that the old days of getting the album on the day and hearing it for the first time are over. Not a good thing in my view, the younger generation missed out on that joy. This way of entering the world of new Elton music is dry and sterile. But it is as it is, so not being a total Luddite, I must use the streaming facility on offer to form an opinion.

First off, some markers before I get into dissecting the beast, some remarks are needed to establish my perspective. Over the last two weeks we've had steady drip feed of tracks appearing either in preview or in the live show. Two separate worlds emanating from the two rooms of Elton and Bernie. My comments below are based solely on the studio versions I've heard. I've tried to put the live versions to one side and listen to this with consistent ears throughout. I've not delved and or given too much away about each track, its more a personal view rather than an autopsy. I'll leave that to those with sharper knives...

Oceans Away 8/10
The opening is a ballad, piano and voice flagging the intent and delivery of the album. Lovely melody, the lyric yearning for the dead on foreign battlefields. A strong song, Bernie nails the thought. Fits into the Gone To Shiloh and The Retreat bracket, I can see this being added to the solo set in the future. Strong opening to the album...I think humble pie may be on the menu today....

Oscar Wilde Gets Out 9/10
The intro has me hooked, typical Elton to get my ear!! The lyric about about a compatriot of mine, Bernie name checking Dublin is a real nice touch for me. Similar to the live version, but the live version has that oomph into try for triumph aspect. Banjo, anyone...the chorus is a real foot tapper; the weaving 2Cellos give it a nice distinctive flavour. A great melody on this one, easily one of the top 2 songs on the album. No surprise why they showcased this song to promote the album. The bridge is Elton present and correct, gosh he kills this one. Definitely in the band set list for a while yet. Here tonight, gone later tonight fans, tough luck...I really love this one!!

A Town Called Jubilee 8/10
A mid tempo intro here, Wild West homestead lyrics have Bernie on familiar ground. Which he always does well. And he does very well here. Bernie is on top form so far on this album, he's not painting pretty pictures, he painting plain and simple life. Doyle Bramhall on guitar isn’t flashy strangely, a nice tasteful twang. If anyone remembers his part on the In The Flesh tour of Roger Waters around 2000 will know he totally overplayed, overegged the delight of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Out maneuvering Gilmour, not good in my book. Anyway, soulful backing vocals with soulful piano combine well. Nice jaunty ride along on this one, some great funky licks hidden on the chorus. Really getting the groove of this track, great chorus. this album is going great guns. Exceeding my expectations...Elton you old devil, you had me worried for a while!!

The Ballad Of Blind Tom 7/10
A serious piano intro now, a shimmering tambourine hollering like a rattler in the desert. It slapping along with the piano, Bernie's lyric is giving Elton another character of pity to tease out. The serious tone isn't without it's ligher moments, the rhythm gradually kicks in and lifts the aural feel. Low humming vocal harmonies coupled with similar cello add that much needed variation, Elton does some great piano work on this, the right moments are properly exposed.

Dream #1 5/10
John Lennon had 9, so Elton is only starting out...but what's this?! The album was going along great when suddenly this diversion appeared. I'm now going down a less attractive route...and an unnecessary one. Where’s me Sat Nav?! This has killed the pace...why they put this in here, oh well. Too short to rate properly...

My Quicksand 2/10
...they should have left it as the intro to this one. Ballad time again, piano and vocal to the forefront. Unfortunately that's all you can say in its favour...this album going fine and now it's going skeways. This is a Lestat out take (not good), right down to Paris being name checked, and has light brush work similar to The Big Picture (even more not good). Boxes are being ticked here...all the wrong ones. Damn, you listen right through and there's no payoff. Apart from the ending. Terrible song, not fit for purpose. 2 votes, one each for the voice and piano. Nothing to hear here, move along. You heard enough in the 30 second preview...

Can't Stay Alone Tonight 5/10
Thankfully the pace is up again, that last section was a right downer. And then they wonder why track skips are on CD player, anyway this one has Bernie again on the doomed love track again. Something he's done better on other albums, When Love Is Dying being one of the all time greats, only just this last album. Elton's melody is pretty, unremarkable with a light swagger. Probably thinks it's better than it is. Middling.

Voyeur 5/10
In another life this could have been on our lips now...back to a ballad again. Nothing wrong with ballads, if they've got a great story to tell and have a memorable melody mixed together then they are the best of both worlds combined perfectly. Doomed love appears again...a pattern is appearing now. It builds up slowly, again inoffensive with a lovely melody. But it seems underdeveloped, you feel it's about to build up to something spectacular, the bridge to the solo is very reminiscent of Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way as it's transition to the ending. This just fades away like melting ice. Just as slushy...the pace of this album had dropped now...and so has the quality. A lot of filler appearing...where's a good editor when you need one?! The ending is the same as the fade out on The Retreat...twice I've mentioned that song so far in this review. Hmmm...

Home Again 9/10
People bandy about the word 'classic' like snuff at a wake. Whilst this song isn't a classic at the moment, it could enter the hallowed halls very soon. Easily one of the top 2 tracks on the album. The melody is the most adventurous, not difficult when you compare to some of the other tracks here. Tracks later on put it into perspective....the melody is expansive; the lyric is an everyman/woman tale. The bridge is stunning, first time I heard this full length version that was the moment. Yet again can see why they put this out first and it's doing the live rounds. 

Take This Dirty Water 6/10
The pace goes up again now, handclaps abound. Mid tempo, with an odd soulful country mix hybrid that's neither one or the other or both together. But it seems to work. The song sounds it has plenty of potential, unfortunately it's another one that seems to missing that hook. The element to grab the ear at the right moment and hold the hearing. Elton has done much better even on the more recent albums. Just seems to fade away...too many musical wallflowers appearing now, the album started very good, really enjoyed it but it's dropped off now. Considerably. Oh dear...

Dream #2 6/10
Cold harsh piano appears now, actually this one works. A far better sound to the previous effort, simple yet effective. Too short unfortunately, that instrumental album must come soon.
Too short to rate properly. Again.

The New Fever Waltz 3/10
This a Billy Elliot discard...if you're familiar with the demo's you'll know the one I'm suggesting off it. Except it's better...another ballad hits us, the melody matches the lyric. This is a very depressing track, Elton sounds very melancholic. Cheer up!! The doom laden brass is funereal, the ending akin to the inspired similar feature on American Triangle. Which this song isn’t even in the ha'penny place compared to it...jeez, I'm dying here. Not literally thankfully, but this is very poor. Complete filler. The 30 second clip was enough also...where is it all going wrong...?!?! Or why...

Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight) 7/10
This was needed. Badly. It's getting very hit and miss now, the misses are really dragging the hits down. Pacing, dear boy as someone said. This song makes more sense  where it is on the album than standing on parade on it’s own. A nice gig about this one, doesn't quite burn but simmers. The live version could boil over, which would be immensely more desirable. The solo zips along, nothing revolutionary to the head but still a welcome sound in the midst of this doom. The outro has plenty of potential in the live setting, hopefully boiling over as I suggested earlier. But will we hear it again onstage?!?! A one, two, a three…

Dream #3 8/10
Great treat this, the best of the best of the Dream triplets so far. Snappy snare jabs and fills from Bellerose work well here. Elton’s playing is unreal here; he really gets into this one. Anyone familiar when he's free styling live will see where this one was born out of...yep, that instrumental album is a must do now. Great changes of pace, twisty and turny out of the unexpected places. The star doesn’t a ship to follow…

The Diving Board 2/10
To put it simply, this track is a woeful ending to what started out as a really promising album but steadily declined midwayish with some good spots intermixed thereafter. It's like Elton doing one of those tribute album tracks, plodding slowly with a hint of swing and not going anywhere at a snail’s pace. Dull in the extreme, 5.55 minutes to keep listening through is tough going. If you can do it, I tip my hat in darn surprise. This song would have been right up Sinatra and Riddle's street. But not down Elton's, he doing another style in its purest form, when Elton sticks too close to the rules he sounds stilted and regimented. The previous track displays that in buckets. If only Dreams through...hardly a way for the hero to go...but he does with this track. Awful. Even The Big Picture didn't fade out like this...

To sum up, the album started great. I mean, the opening fours songs were very strong, consistent and distinctive. Then the first dream started...not a nightmare, but more a restless sleep. Then apart from Home Again with a stunning break in the run, a raft of uninspired ballads appeared. They didn't really add to the album or say anything inspired or stood out. Bernie's lyrics on this one are at their best when dealing with the characters and places. When the love is flat lining songs appear, there's nothing new or fresh being said. Not in 2013 anyway.

Elton's piano playing as per usual on these last two albums are the standout. Along with his vocals. Though at some points you know he's trying different things with it, some work, others less so. But we’ll take it, hear it and see where it takes us over time. When Elton is Elton...his voice and his piano, there's nobody can coach him. He doesn't need forcing or coaxing. The Messi of the music world...just think it and it's done. To the producers credit, he did as he wrote on the tin and let the piano shine through. A device that works well when the song isn't up to par...a bracket a few here unfortunately fall into.

The producer...look, he's not my cup of tea. Never was, never will be. Not with The Union, and certainly not with this one. Yeah, Elton went for him to try something different. Is this album different from any other(more on that point later), but different doesn't mean it'll be good or any better. Or worse of course...empty glasses and all that. But is this album a radical shift? Eh, no. His(producer) hands are all over it...the drum sound is his. Or should I say duffle bag sound. The discreet instrumentation is his trademark (a radical shift from The Union where everything seem to blend into mush). And that's the problem, on the songs that don't quite go over the line he's missed the trick. Other producers of Elton's in the past would found a suitable layer to wrap onto a song that make it more intriguing. Not o fool the listener, but distract him in a nice way. His narrow production policy ultimately left him with little room to maneuver, if the songs were all top notch then he could have proceeded with that policy without the hang-up of some not so great songs being exposed for all to hear. If he had heard the demo's first, assuming if Elton even did any, then he could have had a bit more leeway in his approach. Anyway, I don't want to talk about him anymore. I think he's cooked his goose with Elton, The Union was his 'big' sound, this is the 'little' sound statement. I don't think they've anymore to get out of each other, the producer doesn't have the variation in approach, in delivery of product or the editing(more on that later too) as say a Gus Dudgeon would. Unfair to compare, but that's what the premise of the album was. So they wrote their own publicity, they have to run with it. I don't think we need another album with this producer, thanks for your efforts but now step aside and give us the real Elton sound back please. And our band.

I mentioned compare a moment ago. Because that's all we've heard over the last 18 month's or so. It's like this, that and the other. Specifically, 17-11-70, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water were mentioned in dispatches. Is it like any of those albums? Not in a million years, if I were to detail everything on those albums not here on this one, it would be like roll call at Trident Studios. Does it have the same excitement as the live album in that lot? No...where's the unexpected leaps and drops. Dream #3 oddly enough has the most adventurous moment, short as it is, it catches Elton doing some nifty gear changes and broken rhythms. But it's too short!! If the whole album was filled with those moments, well you know yourself. As regards the two studio albums mentioned, well play them both before this one and listen then to The Diving Board after. Stark isn't's unfair to those early classic albums to have this one compared to it. As it is to have the newer one being mentioned in the same breath to line as those ones. They both have their own lives, this one will to. How does it compare to the albums of this decade pre the Union? It falls behind all of them I’m afraid. Oddly enough, even though The Union isn’t one of my favourites, it seemed to be a more fun album than this one. The Leon effect no doubt. Might be crucial when General Public matches in for a sampler…whether it has the legs to run as far as it's elder brothers, that'll be up to Elton and the band to breath life into them onstage. I trust him and the band on this one.

I know some people reading this are going to start quoting the last Rolling Stone or Mojo review they read and start telling me 'this is what Elton wants to do, he wants to try something different etc'. Look, I get all that. T-shirt printed out, etc. I know the why's of the album, I know the who's of it and I know the where's and what's of it now. This notion, a notion that requires neither thought or an opinion forming view from the listener, that it's what Elton wants to do is to treat the average fan as an autotron who turns up, plugs in and develops the 10,000 yard stare. Elton has such a wide body of work, the biggest I would suggest of his contemporaries, so there's always something for everyone. To blindly go along, like the above mentioned Tom, and just take it all at face value is both devaluing and disrespectful of Elton's and Bernie's work. I know they, nay would want, to hear it being challenged and discussed. It makes them focus their argument better as to why it works for them and how it may change our opinions. And the opposite is true, by us challenging them it gives them a viewpoint that they can never have. That of the fan, they can never break the 4th wall. Only we can supply them with that perspective. So form your own opinion and don’t use a quote from Elton or from the last person you spoke to as rod to beat me with. If you can't get an opinion, then by all means ask someone else...that's what easily lead people do...

Final thoughts. Is it a bad album? No, that was done under the skies of Germany one summers day. Is it the best ever? Oh god no. Too many drippy moments in it, if they'd continued the road it started on it would have been a more solid piece of work. It was upbeat, they sounded like a separate species. But there are some right duds here, but they're gone. Waht saves it are the high points of Elton's piano and singing. Focus on the opening section, the great bits that appear occasionally after that. Oscar Wilde and Home Again are easily the best on it along with Dream #3. They have variation and distinctiveness. The tracks just lower than them in the rankings are adequate supports and are due consideration. The rest, oh dear. Overall there are many hi-fi elements to it that are better than what I thought would be the case, the low expectations meant I was ready for the lo-fi results and they've got their P45’s. The great has overcome the bad…

Before I go, I mentioned editing earlier. To think they left 5th Avenue off this one is another Mandalay Again moment. I‘ll leave that thought hanging in the air…history, who said it doesn't repeat itself...

'The Diving Board - A Final Word'

Monday, September 9, 2013

'Where's The Orchestra?' Billy Joel once sang...the following is a review I posted on FB moments after I watched this show at the strange hour of 8 o'clock in the morning. Elton was the headline act, the mutual appreciation by of Elton and the maker of his the tool of his trade was very much in evident. Elton has used the Yamaha for the best part of 20 years, the longest run of any of his piano's. His first piano supplier did not get mentioned in dispatches favourably...
Elton helped celebrate Yamaha's 125th anniversary by doing an all too infrequent style of show. With the wonderful James Newton Howard at the baton, Elton's concert conductor of choice, we were to be treated to five songs from the greatest songbook of this or any other era. The first two songs, Your Song and Tiny Dancer featured the original Paul Buckmaster arrangements tastefully and measurably spruced up by James. As James said himself in the past, the arrangements were intricate parts of the original songs, not after thoughts. So it's with great disappointment that the sound mix was so poor that we never got to hear them fully realised. Especially when they pulled a master stroke and removed the rhythm section and guitar parts and left a wonderful tight link between the the piano and orchestra in the form of up right bass played by Nathan East, for many years the bass player of Eric Clapton. By doing this, we could (or would have!) hear the great brass announcement that James added on the final verse of Tiny Dancer or the dramatic entrance of the low end of the strings on the first chorus. Sorry Seems To Be featured James' own score, again with embellishments of the original. The woodwinds on the chorus perfectly responding to Elton's vocal. 

Then as it was a Yamaha event, it was time to showcase the said piano. For which Elton picked two songs that would give both sides of his Nice And Slow repertoire. I Guess That's Why slid along as smooth as the soulful vocal Elton always finds for it. Where earlier Elton and sixty people had held sway, he was now center stage. But the sound had not lessened, nor the intensity of the moment. Then Rocket Man introduced us a new intro in the new year...a stop start vocal with the piano notes left to hang from the rafters of the auditorium. The piano man was making his stand...needless to say his vocal soared to the same lofty heights. Which at the moment is in its best shape for years. Dexterous with a depth and a flexibility that can wrap itself around the great lyrics. Some final remarks. This is the sort of show Elton should do more of. The sound of Elton and the orchestra without the band caught the moment right. Both parties could exist in their separate worlds while at the same time work in perfect harmony. We don't hear those arrangements organically enough, the surge as the space Elton created in his music is filled with a perfectly fitted layer. James Newton Howard knows Elton's music like the baton he holds. Having played all the early arrangements on the keyboards in the 70's and 80's live not to mention the orchestra tours in days of yore, he can pre-empt any move Elton can make. Possibly even those he hasn't made yet! This show should be toured in this from without delay. I believe that now that from now on every Yamaha showroom from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe will now play a recording of that portion of the show to sell their product...hopefully with the sound corrected!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

'Ten Years A Slave To Rock And Roll...Getting More Roll Than Rock'

Bernie. He always seem to get possibly the good end of the deal, getting a nice little earner form the old lyrics game and being able to do with his life as he wants. A proper job some might say! Working on his ranch, being able to walk down the street and still have the satisfaction and knowledge of having put pen to paper to some of the great ones. In the early days he had the fringe benefits of the rock star lifestyle, without the hard work involved of actually performing each night. Being able to travel with Elton on tour and see the world gave us some insights from him in he early days and later on. Sick City being one of the most telling, more about it in another post. But like all travelling roadshows at the time, the pitfalls were there. They being the trail blazers of that new found lifestyle, the jest rock star swinging into each city and becoming that metropolis's god for a day. Or for however long they were there for. None of us know what that's like until you experience it...I haven't and I don't know many, if any, that have either. Unless some very famous people are reading we don't know how we'd react if we became part of that world. But you can be sure we'd change...for better or worse is a moot point. Joe Walsh may have had tongue in cheek when he said Life's Been Good in 1978, but there was a lot of truth in what he said...

'It's tough to handle

This fortune and fame
Everybody's so different
I' haven't changed'

But Bernie certainly did change. As of course did Elton. The 1976 tour essentially ended as a circus. Elton more into acting the showman and completely neglecting the basics, piano, voice and song. Bernie had become a more than regular drinker and use of other such naughty things. Along with the White Lady...but the basic and fundamental relationship was under strain and had to be put on hold. The songwriting aspect was going askew, June and Moon as the later example suggest was now a lyrical possibility. Albeit temporarily, but still a break nonetheless. 

Perspective arises here a lot on this blog, looking at something with the narrative of being there and then looking back on the same subject is fascinating. Do the rose tints shade the truth? Well not when Bernie is around...the two songs I've singled out from purely a lyrical point are I Cry At Night (1978) and Tinderbox (2006). Both dealing with that late '76 till mid '79 when the writing partnership resumed at full pelt. Bernie at this point having his belly full of the contemporary rocker, Ego being his less than cryptic message to them all. This vacant like an empty shell period when Elton and Bernie worked with their different writing partners was both needed and ultimately a long term bonus. But the personal toll the lifestyle took on Bernie is evident. Marriage run aground on the rocks and all hands lost. The 'Lipstick Lies' surely a less than coded way of detailing Mrs. Taupins untruths. He all alone...the rock and roll bandwagon's wheels had come off. We can only imagine how that sudden stop after a decade felt. Whether it be by choice or by outside influences, the impact of the lights on and then suddenly going out was frightening. The future as uncertain as your way out of the darkness. What to do next, if there's even a next. Needless to say, the separating of the roads briefly took place. From each other and the whole lifestyle package. The pressure cooker of a dome they existed in was reaching exploding point. But as we know the smell of the greasepaint and the heat of the light's drew them back, at least Elton to the stage anyway. Bernie from thereon in taking less opublci backseat, the limelight's all yours Elton I'm sure he would have said. Elton's solo performance of this song is stark, cold as the content but hot in the sincerity he gives to Bernie's lyrics. When he sings about Bernie's experiences, they're not a million miles from his own...

Tinderbox looks back to 30 years earlier. From the elder, wiser viewpoint. But has the story changed or the way it's told? No. No spin. No twisting of the facts. It's there in plain English

'We were coasting on a winning streak

We were kings until the power failed'

Bernie told us how he felt in 1977/78, that's the reason why in the lines above. The sudden impact at terminal velocity. The recognition by both parties that the 'Tinderbox' that they both existed in, the inverse of a biodome, because it was full of poison and wrong influences which ultimately would have rendered the partnership a corpse if they hadn't backed off. Almost as far away as possible, Mexico and Saville Row being more than a Stone's Throw from each other. The lyric is brutally honest, both are of course. The feeling at the time and the feelings later are both the same. Time put the break into perspective, but when I Cry At Night was penned that future was unwritten. When Tinderbox was written the past had unfolded. But the feelings and emotions felt by Bernie at the time hadn't dulled or become any more romantic. Not that they were in any way romantic in the first place...because if they hadn't these final lines wouldn't have been an unfilled prophecy, they'd have been a statement. Of fact...

'We've gotta climb out of the other one's pocket 

Or we're gonna burn out on this beautiful rocket'

Elton's melody is the perfect backdrop to the lyrics, not a mournful or doom laden line. The actual moment he is singing about is a crisis, in both songs. The earlier song is an immediate one, even the writer doesn't know the outcome. But in Tinderbox Elton knows the ending...because he was in he can rightly feel that he's (and Bernie) have triumphed in coming out. They could see the signs, they didn't have to read the tea leaves and the tarots, and were able to take evasive action. Otherwise if they hadn't done so, it would have ended there and then. 'Things are gonna have to change' in order to ensure the music 'goes on breathing'....