Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Silent Movies, Talking Pictures'

To paraphrase one of the most famous tag lines in movie it a concert or is it a film...the answer would still be the same. Superman...thankfully Elton kept his underwear right side in and his super powers right side out. Whilst wearing a cape. What did this unique experience have to offer...lets dim the lights and get comfy.

The idea of the concert film is nothing far back as the late 60's, Monterrey Pop, Woodstock and probably the greatest of them all Let It Be(1970) established the genre. Elton himself got in on the act with To Russia With Elton in 1979. Whereas they all mixed offstage footage and interviews with the stage element, the idea of a full concert film is a relatively recent idea. For Elton's first venture into this territory there was only really one show that could fit the task. 

I'm sure everyone reading this knows the background to the Million Dollar Piano show. Without going over the why's and where's, I'm merely going to do a review of the actual film. Which on paper (and ultimately in practice) sets out to showcase Elton's music. The Good, the Better and the Greatest. There's no song in the set list that is alien to any Elton fan. Not even the casual fan would go home with their monies worth not realised. Because when they hear the non-hits they've been sucked into a world that up to that point they weren't aware of. You can be certain they left the venue yearning for more.

The film opens with one of the most well known cinematic pieces. Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30...or more commonly known as being from 2001:A Space Odyssey...or known commonly as Elvis's intro to his own Vegas soiree in the 70' perfectly timed and makes as grand a statement as Elton does in his cape as he sweeps into shot. The Bitch Is Back is bombastic in nature and delivery. As is the song. The tone is set. Levon is a terrific highlight of the opening act. Ray Cooper if he was walking by and spotted his rig set up...and switches back and forth from cymbal, tambourine and conga's. The various soundscapes he brings to the version he plays with Elton are all present and correct. Adding that heightened tension as we (the diehards) wait for what's coming. The gear change on the outro as Elton lead a good old chase through every key on the piano is no surprise (except to the casuals). When Elton stands up he's like a leading man, goading himself as much as the crowd...he can out maneuver everyone that dares try to catch him. The band are closely keeping him boxed in...he reaches the Vanishing Point as quick as he set out from it. A Getaway as cool as Steve McQueen. Somebody said music is always coming from somewhere and going to somewhere. Got that right...

Elton then gets all technical on us...washer/dryer with unlimited spin!! The price tag of the piano is a million big ones, but in truth it still sounds the same as his regular Yamaha. That sound is priceless...the cool lighting and effects coupled with it's shape and design is where the money has been sunk. As deep as an aquarium I'd imagine...

The version of Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatters that developed from the show and went on tour is one of the all time greats. Davey's mandolin, the Mandolisa it's called and designed by friend of this blog Traci at Imagine Loving Art...when it could be heard (more on that later) is beautifully uplifting that works perfectly against the The 2Cello's plaintive, melancholic sound. The harmonies of the girls are measured superbly. A solo Your Song with Elton explaining how it came about might sound borderline repetitive (to the diehards) but he still makes it sound (especially for the casuals) an essential part of the show.  

All of which leads us to the middle act. Where the real scene stealers happen. The band (and their gear) retreat to the shadows in a holding pattern to allow Elton and Ray renew combat. Both against other and with each other. A right pair of Gladiators! The brief snapshot of them both in the middle of the show is more than a cameo. Better Off Dead is full of percussive force. In the shadows the wonderful harmonies on the middle eight creep through to add that uniqueness to the version. Indian Sunset...I'm not sure you can say much more about it at this stage. But let's try...Elton's vocal on it's own at the start has the crowds attentions and emotions grasped with it's strength and gusto. If you watch him when he's playing the solo parts, the look of concentration on Elton's face is incredible. He's not coasting through it, he's putting his full back and more into it. Hence the result, an expansive fast moving passage that's sharp and diverse. Ray's accompaniment is often brutal at times, sad with flashes of joy but never dull. He's got Bernie's lyrics perfectly showcased. This (too) brief two hander...well four actually...rightly deserves all the praise lavished on it. To hear and see one of the most unique type of twosomes ever to come out or rock and roll is a privilege. The pleasure is both the performers and audiences.

The final act see's all the players take centre stage, individually and collectively. Blue Eyes, which is no longer performed on the current run, is an Elizabeth Taylor tribute. The band version is a rare sight so it was great to hear it. Exquisite brush work from John Mahon gave it an easy go-long rhythm. The 2Cello's and Kim intertwined immaculately to bring James Newton Howard's brilliant orchestral arrangement back to life. Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me was another pivotal movement. The big numbers are all Elton's, he certainly didn't fluff any lines. It was huge and it shuddered. Like Titanic being launched. The rock out part as per usual left no room for breath catching. It was one climatic scene after another. But not the climax... what better way to bring down the curtain on a movie than with a movie song. Movie in terms of where it can from and moving in terms it's delivery. Circle Of Life with it's elongated intro on it's own would possibly be statue awarding. To hear Nigel, John and Ray adding their own each unique percussive beat simultaneously was incredible. It was thunderous, the repeating of it over and over built the tension up steadily that at no point did you expect to burst. The rhythm was relentless. The backing singers chanting and bubbling under this current of celebratory beating of hearts and minds merely focused the moment with even tighter intensity. Until that is Elton returned and his ''uh-oh's'' heralded his final scene. Bit this merely wasn't a reenactment of something on disc. This version took it to another place. A greater place. All boxes ticked were ticked, the driving chorus with the hammering riff from Davey. The final verse even had that trademark guitar lick from him that the original has. The final chorus was like the ride off into the sunset. Tremendous harmonies lifted the emotions up and held them tightly. In any other instance that would have been enough for any mortal. But what gave it life everlasting is when Ray Cooper chimed in on the tubular bells. That simple addition in films was always used to herald a heavenly theme...and there we were. Up above and looking down. The hero's had saved the day again. Easily the best version ever of the song.

The film clips that were used, whilst not visible at all times, were in better keeping with the songs than The Red Piano film clips were. Tiny Dancer's was a simple affair that was filmed in such a manner that seemed 3D. The Goodbye Yellow Brick Road clip is one of the best, again simply done but says so much. As I mentioned above, Circle Of Life is a terrific show closer. If the ears are bent into shape by it then the eyes will certainly have their lashes waxed. From the heat of the African skies that light up and swathe all over the stage and the personnel like fire. Not just any old fire, but a Towering Inferno that the heat from nearly moves from imaginary to real. I did get a bit hot in the cinema near the end...who knew!!

Overall it was a tremendous showcase of Elton the live performer. It's not the same as being there in Las Vegas or seeing Elton live anywhere for that matter. That's a special moment, celluloid and now digital can't recreate that. But what they have done is shown a concert that is all things to all people. His music, Bernie's words, Gary Osborne's words, Tim Rice's words are all introduced to the newer fan and renewed for us. The band were without fault...they always are...the 2Cello's added support at the right times. They took their cues well. The singers were polished as per usual, they picked all their moments carefully. 

The picture quality was excellent, sharp and clear. The colours of the staging and lighting were delicately captured. The picture mix however at time bordered on comedy. Facial and head hair seem to grow,  be cut and grow back again with amazing regularity during the space of one song. They obviously went for optimum over all performance for a song by splicing multiple performances together, but they could have done a bit better with that aspect of it. I suspect Robert Webb to have a whole episode of his Movie Mistakes programme on BBC3 put aside for it. The good aspects of the picture mix were the infrequent (thankfully) snaps of the audience. I know what people look like...though during Saturday Night's Alright it did catch some great shots of a charming young lady and her charms on stage. Elton certainly caught an eyeful...lucky man!! The view from above was a clever device, hopefully in the DVD releases multi angle viewing might be an option.

Now to the sound quality. Something that can make or break a music presentation. Overall the sound was clear but wasn't without it's faults, unfortunately. The mix in a lot, though not all places, was wrong. Very wrong. Elton's sound people are the best. I've never had any complaints with the shows I've been to, whether they be in a tent, an indoor arena, an outdoor stadium or the garden of a stately home. When soundboard recordings in their purest form surface they are perfectly balanced. If you want a recent excellent example, the WALMART show is a prime one. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I've never seen any of these music presentations in the cinema before. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I'd have thought they'd have made more use of the surround aspect of the cinema sound system for example. Elton's piano and vocal was up front, music to some people's ears but I got issues with that. Somebody somewhere has taken a decision to go against best practice, in other words Elton's own sound engineers, and distorted the overall delivery. For example on Mona Lisa's and Mad Hatters the mandolin and the cellos were too quiet. It's not as if they were drowning out Elton in the first place. Kim's keyboard and Davey's guitars again seemed washed out on occasions. Not too often thankfully, hopefully it'll be rectified for the DVD release. The percussion too at times wasn't as up front as it would be in real life. With Ray Cooper doing his thing, not a good idea. The bass too wasn't as punchy as you'd hear at a real concert, which was a great shame. It didn't have that in 'your gut feel' that runs through your body. Bob Birch, who I'll speak more of later, was a master of his 5 string and those lines deserved their usual prominent place. I suspect this music concert in the cinema lark is in it's infancy and they'll get the sound thing resolved. But at the moment I don't think it's matching the visual delivery by any stretch of the imagination. Overall it didn't detract fom the keen ear does get a bit touchy if things just ain't right!!

The omission of Hey Ahab was a bit odd. It works great live, the weaving of Davey and the 2Cellos on the outro is the ultimate payoff. Plus Lisa Stone owning it too. If they'd have left out I Guess That's Why...I doubt there'd be too many furrowed brows. But the balance of the setlist was still weighted perfectly.

The show is dedicated to Mark Fisher and of course Bob Birch. Mark designed the stage and brought a touch of class to it. Quite a bit in fact. It wasn't tacky or plasticy, it brought the cavernous stage into a more humble and intimate looking setting. Bob in the film did what he always did best. He played and sang his parts with with the freshness as if he were playing them for the first time but with the benefit of 20 years doing it under his belt. It was by good grace, God's grace maybe, that he's been captured for evermore. Bob was taken from us but those performances can never be taken. The film had immortalised them.

The cinema had somewhere between 50 and a 100 maybe. It was hard to judge in the dark...they say you meet a better class of person in the dark sometimes so I guess they were all great!! Thankfully there were no loud singers that were under some illusion that we'd come along to hear their untuned warbling. I'd have watched that on The Voice at home if I had such a masochistic tendency. Singing at a concert is a given, but we were at a film. Not quite the same thing, though we did find a La La La in us...the whole purpose of the event was to see and hear Elton doing something unique (the MDP show) in a unique environment (the cinema). 

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the whole event. They picked a great show to show as visually is immense and aurally it's epic. Unfortunately they only did one viewing, but at least I caught the 'moment'... the last time I was at the cinema a man played piano at it and we read the words. This time one man did both...hopefully we won't have to wait another minute to see and hear something just as good. Or groundbreaking.

'Million Dollar Piano - DVD Review'

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'Hip Hoppin'

Elton interviews...when they're about the music and not 'other' topics are always interesting. Rolling Stone which now champions all things musical by Elton, something that wasn't always the case, has grabbed five minutes to put the burning questions to him. Some very enlightening and some downright bizarre stuff in it...let's see what moss we gather from it. The full text can be found here.

Hip-hop is something I have absolute no interest in. I'm aware of I re tune the radio if I should land upon such a broadcast. So when I see headlines proclaiming Elton wants to make records in the genre the blood does tend to run a bit on the icy side. But if you actually read what he says it's merely a sidebar. We're not (thankfully) going to have foisted on us a whole album of such 'delights'. His collab with Timbaland a few years ago was very good, in a one off setting it's possible to find some gems. But a whole album...let's keep the wanting a bit more wanted. 

It wouldn't be a Rolling Stone interview if their favourite sunshine lad wasn't mentioned. They're obviously either unaware (deliberately or unintentionally) that a third album with this fella is something that has as much appeal as a wet weekend on the beach. In winter. Elton's answer is telling, I think. A one line affirmation, a quick diversion to another topic and a much longer explanation of his outside work. I do think (hopefully) we've seen the last of this chap masquerading as somebody competent in making an Elton album...

...which leads to a bizzare insight from Rolling Stone. Some of the younger scribes of today don't a have a Scooby Doo but plenty of Shaggy ideas. Comparing early 70's Elton with Kanye West is off the wall stuff. I wouldn't know one Kanye West song from another, the bits I have heard sound like something that would be best left under the dust bin lid. Scrappy indeed. So if someone can make that connection, then you gotta wonder if they've anything else useful to say. I doubt it. I suspect they're next hair brained idea following on from that would be 'At Home With The Furnishes'...the blood is getting even colder now.

The touring question has arose again. My guess is there'll be very few shows in 2015 and beyond. 2014 is full with tour dates so far, but early Autumn is still blank so any territories not on the list he may be coming your way!! His domestic setup means he will cut back. The Ray Cooper shows coming to America is a dangly carrot. Whether it happens or not, time will tell. The MDP shows only have a limited run this year. It's future does seem to be up in the air at the minute. From what I can gather, the cinema screenings this week seem to have been a major flop in the US. In some places attendances not even in double figures...sounds like a turnout in some recent referendums here. What went wrong will come out in time...more about that at a later date I suspect.

The next part of the interview does tell a great deal. It's no secret that Elton doesn't really like revisiting his older material much. The query as to full album shows demonstrates that. Though I still think with the blank dates in the Autumn he may still do a few special one off shows for the GYBR 40th. Whether he actually does the whole album is up for debate. I suspect he may do very close if not all of it. That would be truly a landmark event if it were to happen. The tour so far this year has seen a gradual expansion of the setlist with songs from it. He then mentions The Diving Board. I've been saying this since last September, Elton tried the songs in concert and they didn't work. He decided that, not anyone else. It's a pity those who bombarded Davey's blog during that bizarre period last year couldn't grasp that concept from the off. Not sure how long it takes a penny to drop in other places...hopefully it's scored a direct hit by now. Notwithstanding the fact that there was no special show to promote the album. As I said before, the Capitol Records preview show this time last year put paid to that. A future blog post on how inept and counter productive they were to follow in the future. As Elton says himself, the songs are only fit for small venues. So a 'Beacon' type show would have been the ideal showcase. But we've had to settle for just Elton and the band since then...tough isn't it not!! The GYBR 40th has lashed The Diving Board out of it...

The final part of the interview brings up Billy Joel. I love Billy Joel. I've seen him with Elton and on his own. So there'll be no Billy bashing here. Plenty of forums to indulge in that aspect of communication for those of that persuasion. When Billy announced his Madison Square Garden residency last year the amount of Billy vitriol that I seen dispensed by some Elton fans could have filled the venue in it's own right. As we know, they both had a falling out a few years ago. Over what, who knows and cares. But all that's in the past, they kissed and made up. I'd be ecstatic if they toured again. It got a bit old when they kept doing it in America exclusively. But it still sold out each time. If they took to the rest of the world again, it might never end. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

'Reaching Out'

A discussion that was raised on the one of the Elton forums the other day reminded me about this topic. Through many of the songs when Elton is singing, he singing about himself, or Bernie, both of them or in fact neither. I read an interview with Bernie a while back where he said that a lot of the sings that Elton thought were about him(Elton) actually weren't about him at all! What songs they are would be a real eye opener I suspect. I've always thought of this song as being about Elton first and foremost. In fact, as we'll see further in, it's more than that.

The time, late 1988. The place, a very dark one. For Elton, certainly. On this blog I don't delve into anyone's personal lives as this is not what the blog is all about. If you want that type of thing, there's plenty of man hole covers on the web to lift up. But sometimes we do have peer in and see what's happening as and when it affects the music. No bigger example than this case. At that time Elton had just gotten divorced from Renate, he'd completed a 'comeback' tour after his voice op. The latest album, Reg Strikes Back was about to 'cardboard' as he remarked later on tour. There is no doubt that at this time his substance abuse was on the inevitable destination. If it weren't arrested in time. For the best part of two decades this on/off lifestyle was now mounting up in terms of problems. Which again are well documented elsewhere. So it was no surprise that those around him, especially Bernie, would be well aware the futility of it all.

What Bernie penned for Elton was in effect a message to him. Not coded, with very few metaphors laced through it. It's very simple in it's message...'reach out for her healing hands'. Bernie himself had gone down the same road in the past but by this stage had been on an even keel for a long time. So he knew better than anyone what it was to experience being like that, then to acknowledge it and finally to get something done about it. A few steps to the twelve steps. He worded what is one of his greatest pieces of support that anyone could give a friend. The first two verses recounting his lowest point, the third verse his determination to rise up and the chorus his championing over the darkness and letting the light back in. In other words, it's there, Elton. Salvation is at hand...but you gotta reach out first. Only Elton can make the first step, the hardest one of course, but when he does his vision of life will be clearer and brighter. 

I've said it before about Bernie, he has great honesty in his lyrics. Elton has great honesty too when it comes to singing about himself. Especially when it's somebody else who has 'spoken' for him. That's why the partnership works. I'm sure Elton at the time was well aware of the songs meaning, not just on a wider scale but for him in particular, As we know he didn't immediately take up Bernie's invite to reach out, it would be another 18 months before that road was travelled. But there's no doubt this was of many catalysts for that long road.

The song itself is superb, Sleeping With The Past is one of my favourite albums. It took me a while to get into but it is incredibly accessible now. Great polished production from Chris Thomas, using what was a contemporary sound (1980's) to recreate a retro (1960's & 70's) style. At the time it was normal procedure, but if it were done now the synth parts would be played by real instruments (strings and brass). In retrospect it's very much of it's time so that uniqueness may prove in the long term to be as just important as the songwriting on it, which is very strong. A great piano solo from Elton...from a time when he didn't play much piano, or so the old yarn goes...with a terrific intro to the song, The unusually clean sounding drum line from Moffatt...he not being a favourite of this blog I'm afraid...with those grinding guitar announcements from Davey. Elton's late 80's/early 90's voice has the right degree of soul without getting too heart wringing.

To sum up, we can all speculate what Bernie is on about and as we all know that is a never ending task. But I think here he's left the listener...and the no doubt about what the method is in the lyric. Thankfully it came to fruition is all I can say...

I never dreamed I could cry so hard
That ain't like a man
I could fly like a bird some days
Had a place where I could land

I could have sworn we were all locked in
Ain't that what you said
I never knew it could hurt so bad
When the power of love is dead

But giving into the nighttime
Ain't no cure for the pain
You gotta wade into the water
You gotta learn to live again

And reach out for her healing hands
Reach out for her healing hands
There's a light, where the darkness ends
Touch me now and let me see again
Rock me now in your gentle healing hands

I never knew love like poison
That burned like a fire
All I ever wanted was a reason
To drown in your eyes

I never knew sleep so restless
Empty arms so cold
That's not the way it's supposed to be
It ain't the spell that I was sold

Saturday, March 1, 2014

'Let Me Fly To Distant Lands'

One of those questions that regularly pops up is where would you like to see Elton perform, if could choose one location. Madison Square Garden springs to mind first. Sydney Entertainment Centre, the scene of my first Elton album, is another. But If I had to choose one place to see Elton and the band, it would be Brazil. He's just finished his second tour in a row there. On the tour last year we were lucky to be able to watch a live stream of the Sao Paolo show which was incredible. This year from indoors in Rio to outdoors in the big football stadiums that will be used in the World Cup in the summer he's rocked like a samba. I've been lucky to be able to follow fans on Facebook from that part of the world travel around the country to attend the shows. The fans are mental (in a good way!) down there and don't have any cynicism that you see elsewhere. They couldn't give a flying fig if all or nothing from an album is played. 

But if Elton didn't play this one they'd dismantle the place brick by brick!! Skyline Pigeon speaks for itself...quality...he's done the solo version many times over the last number of years but the band version really injects power and strength. I was lucky enough to see him perform the band version for the first time ever in Thomond Park in 2009. Since that tour it's only appeared in that form in Brazil. The song is special enough down there as it is, but Elton saving it for them makes it a little bit more for keeps. This time Davey is playing acoustic guitar on it rather than the electric double neck he used up to this.

A few other comments about the Brazil tour. Elton changed the setlist around every night, Daniel (band version) appearing for the first time in a while and Nikita ventured out of Europe. It seems Elton is mixing it up a bit more than usual and bringing a surprise element to the set. It’s a pity I’ve Seen That Movie Too only lasted a few shows in Canada, but if Elton doesn’t feel it back from the audience he gets disheartened very quickly. Same thing goes for albums of a more recent nature, shall we say. No danger of him waiting for the day in Brazil when he doesn’t get it back…