Saturday, September 27, 2014

'Elton & Ray Live At Galaxie dÀmnéville 26th September 2009 - CD Review'

Earlier this month was the birthday of Ray Cooper. I'll not say his age, needless to say it's irrelevant to his playing. In honour of this anniversary, I dug out one of the early shows from the third age of his efforts with Elton.

This time five years ago was a state of flux in the Elton world, anyone who was present during that troubled time will be familiar as to why. In the midst of this turmoil the two man show as it's known in some quarters was resurrected to great acclaim. Nearly a decade and a half after it's last curtain call the much anticipated re-union was awaited with eager expectation. Did expectations meet that keen sense of excitement that bubbled? Disc one of three discs was first on... we very lucky to have Concert Live record all six shows on this short European tour. The first show at the Royal Albert Hall wasn't lucky enough to be released in soundboard form but the subsequent shows were just as strong and at least early on in the tour were just as long. The tour was short and swift, a quick scoot down the highways and byways of France and Italy. A chance to get the oil flowing back to unfamiliar bearings and rings that might have, but didn't, seize up whilst being laid up. Concert Live always did a decent job, though they had trouble mixing audience and stage sound. When audience sound was turned up the stage sound became something like a badly tuned in radio. But those moments were brief and didn't spoil the overall quality. I'm singling out the second show from Galaxie dÀmnéville, 26th September 2009, as it has the longer setlist. I'll highlight some old favourites and the later additions to the setlist that had new spins put on them. 

First thing to be said about the opening half is the solemnity of the occasion. In fact, it's sombre and hovering just north of downbeat. Elton's mood was incredibly low, his slow speaking (mostly in French) was tempered with the need to entertain. The songs were the main act, they didn't fail to deliver. Due in no small part to the fact the set list was a triumph of variety and the exotic. Elton's voice at the start was rough, improvement was brisk though. The opening of The One was a masterclass of hope that delivered. It seemed to give Elton the nod to kick on and put his best fingers forward. Sixty Years On with his heavy left hand was definitely showing the best side, incredible vibrations reverberated long after the keys had been depressed and released. The great aspect of this setlist was how the 90's and 00's material was exhumed. Too long it's been airbrushed from the set, this time it was standing in line. The Emperor's New Clothes with it's marching solo showing no lack of confidence surrounded by classics like Rocket Man with it's MIDI heavy effects that used the technology to enhance the songs mesmeric trajectory. Weight Of The World continuing the life affirmation for desired life that has been realised. Blues Never Fade Away is where the culmination of all this striving for something positive to cling on to finally hits home. Dedicated as a tribute to the recently lost Guy Babylon it fitted perfectly on a number of levels. Firstly he played on the studio version, so the song will always have part of him. Secondly the lyrics are tailor made for that exact moment. A moment that when you listen to Elton speaking before it, you can't help be moved by the total genuine sentiment that seeps through the entire speech. If the first part was a struggle for answers, then by the end of the solo set we may have found some peace. But the peace in the theatre would be temporary.

As soon as Ray appeared, Elton was suddenly buoyed. The appearance of a friend and musical confidant would drive the second half on into new lighter territory. Though the time away had created occasional bouts of uncertainty between the two, the hesitant cues created by absence but would be rectified by frequent presence together. Funeral For A Friend has one of the greatest piano intros created by anyone who has used the instrument as their canvas of choice. The steady progression and the quickly developing aura suddenly interrupted by Ray beating the last drop of sound out of the timpani. The assault is quick, loud but very comfortable until the vast range of emotions that is Tonight restores tranquility. The great thing about these shows as I alluded to earlier is how old and new mix well. The old get a makeover in some places too, giving them some 21st Century sparkle with a vintage heritage. Come Down In Time's light airy rhythm is accentuated by Ray adding shaker on the intro and vibes as the song progresses. The troika of Carla/Etude/Blessed is no juxtaposition but a the act of a magician. The terrific instrumental leads into one of my all time favourite songs, the melody hypnotises but sleep is kept away by the intensity of the songs message. Crazy Water has it's usual zany mix of alternating rhythms. Saturday Night's Alright is a masterclass of tambourine spanking, the call and response at the end has gently simmering conga's. Rank Films opened with a gong, Elton and Ray shows close with a swanky gong!

YouTube has very kindly provided the full show for listening pleasure. I think these batch of shows catch Elton at a vulnerable moment. Emotionally charged onstage he transfers those feelings through the music with a combination of frailty and strength. The setlist is probably the best from any of the series of shows, including those from '79 and '93-'95. The tone may be reflective, but understandable when you consider the context. If you listen to this show and then put one of the Spring 2010 shows like Grand Rapids for example then we see how music has the power to heal and renew. Life is everything...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

'To Be A B-Side, Or Not To Be A B-Side'

It's some question, ain't it. Luckily over the years Elton, or sometimes the various record bosses, have treated us with the cuts that weren't considered good enough for the final album track listing. Though when you look down the list of b-sides you can't help but think that most would have sat very proudly and without any fear of inferiority on the album that they missed out on.

If you look at the 21 At 33  recording sessions, because of David Geffen's pie fingering we ended up with essentially a whole album of relegated songs. More up to date Peachtree Road left us with half an album of material that luckily saw the light of day and the sound of joy for us. There's been a great many more over the years, too many to go into great detail individually one by one here. But I'm going to look at one of my all time favourites. I focused already on two of my favourite b-sides from some of the other mansions of Elton's many recording houses. The Retreat and So Sad The Renegade being high up on my list.

One can only imagine the dregs of the gutter that Elton and Bernie would have encountered on the road in the early 70's. Every type of chancer and spiv with silvery trails more akin to a slug get together pitching up with one hand longer than the other. One to pick you, the other to land the blade in. If patience wasn't lost quickly, it would have been sorely tested. Bernie took all these usual suspects and packaged them up lyrically to let us float down into 'Sick City'. Wrapped around it though was one of the greatest counter melodies Elton has ever put down on disc to Bernie's life observations.  

If you look at the lyrics firstly, we're greeted firstly by the ultimate 70's temptation and cliche. The groupie, who by her given age (what she says and what's true may be one of the same thing...or may not) in some US states would be legal, in others would have you heading for the clink. As the Sick City in question is focused on New York reportedly, anyone thinking of crossing that line should have Attica State by John Lennon humming in their ears. But all that doesn't stop her spelling out in around about way (firstly) where she'd like to go. For her (second) point of arrival she comes straight out with her offer of a 'rubdown' conjuring up a various range of possibilities. No doubt to hear those British accents in a more intimate setting being part of the appeal. And the fact that they're rock stars equally appealing to the cheeky minx. The 'tricks' she had in mind wouldn't have been seen on a Paul Daniels show...not even with Debbie McGee...even after the watershed. The leeches and the 'here tonight, gone later tonight' type fan just looking for a 'handout' are next to appear around the back. We can only speculate on the myriad of tales of woe that were spun, some truthfully, others very dishonestly. All with the same aim, to relieve them 'loaded down dudes'. Or, as is suggested by the 'healing show' line, that Elton could sell them a couple of bottles of Doctor Good. I think they'd have to wait till Cher and her Papa were in town for that particular beverage. 

If in 1970 there was some degree of innocence lost and paradise gained, by early '74 it had been extinguished quicker than the stage lights. Though the 'monkeys' would always find some solace at the door, in spite of the various shades of darkness they brought with them.

A great set of lyrics requires what. Elton to do his party piece. Looking at the tone of them, it's a desperate tale of downbeats that ultimately make the main aim of the game, the music, a bit harder with so many hangers on. It's dark undertones, when scratched, or even tasted, leave you sick. Nothing pleasant so far. But what does Elton do? The complete opposite and use a clever musical tool.

Ironic comment. In this case, Elton, musically, puts on a mock musical hall style, nearly vaudeville in some ways (the mock style coming from the 'upright piano'  that evoke images of a theatre full of merry revellers ala 'The Good Old Days') just one key device employed. His vocal is tone neutral, if you listen to it he neither strays into comedy or deadly seriousness. A line between Ticking and Solar Prestige territory. But one he carries off with no sense of pathos either. It's a frank delivery. The melody itself is pure singalong, catchy and cheeky. It never undersells the lyrical message or denigrates it any way. So whilst we're rowing along in a cesspool with the lowest forms of life, we're doing it a merrily, merrily way.

The production here is incredible, as is always the case with Gus. Caribou early 1974 has the band in top notch recording form. Davey's bluesy guitar has found it's voice, it snarls in and out throughout with an equally almost offensive (in a good way!) solo. Dee's bassline is tensility embodied in four strings. Nigel's drum sound was reaching the peak of it's 70's incarnation. Listen to the way it's recorded, which by all accounts took ages to set up in the new studio, and it's a masterclass in playing. The ride cymbal sounds like it's right beside you. The tom's are tuned with a heavy tone that gives them great firmness. It's a massive sound. The Tower Of Power brass section has a stylish swagger that hums in the low key and speaks up with great purpose when called for. 

But where Gus really nails the hammer, is by keeping the trademark harmonies right till the end. The high altitude of Colorado making them even more nearer to heaven, both literally and musically. Rather than some outro that doesn't do much but just fade away, their late arrival makes staying to the end a required listen. A final burst of the chorus line with the entire company chipping in. Elton works the comedic piano sound well here, not quite silent film stuff but it would be no stranger to that genre either.

Ultimately this never ended up on, I can't believe it either. But any survey over the years I've seen has always puts this at the top or near the top least ways of the favourite b-sides list. Everything works here even when you think it shouldn't. A look at the underbelly of rock and roll touring with a jaunty almost knees up melody. And some people wonder why this pair are masters of their art...not anybody reading this blog I hope!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

'What The Papers Say'

Here's a first...a blog post about a blog post. Or to be exact the reaction to it.

When I started this blog last year the purpose of it was to get Elton's music out there. For too long the 'other side' of his career...showbiz, drugs, drink, relationships, shopping, flowers and so the list goes on...seemed to take precedent over the music. For me it starts and ends with what happens on disc and on stage. All those other extra curricular affairs bore me to tears. Too many indeed. Anything that gets Elton's music output to the forefront of peoples consciousness has to be encouraged. As time has gone on the reaction I've got to the blog has been incredible. So thanks to everyone who has popped in for a gawk. One of the mandates here is that a consensus is not required when viewing. Agreement or disagreement is both expected and tolerated. .

I've been reading worldwide online reviews of Elton since the late 90's when they became easier to access. There's been some right pelters flung in his direction during that time, not just one either. Some of the late 90's one's were particularly savage. A backlash to the whole Diana spectacle no doubt. In fact, I myself challenged a well known reviewer as to the validity of his comment. BP Fallon, one time associate member of the Plastic Ono Band, published a quite scathing review in the Sunday Independent of Elton and Billy at Croke Park in 1998. So with keyboard in hand, I became a warrior. The difference being with today's equivalent of said sage of the internet, I put my name to it. The paper published my letter the following week challenging his misinterpretations and ultimately convincing those who were led astray. At least that's what I hoped it did. I'm no stranger over the years to standing up for Elton when unfair commentary has been broadcast. I may tell the story another time of some of my various radio appearances over the years doing just that.

However since the turn of this decade there's been a generally overwhelming, dare I say, total agreement among reviewers about Elton's live prowess. I'm always cautious when there's a common policy of opinion formers, the police department of thought can manifest itself in various forms. The initial reviews of The Diving Board were all copy and paste jobs from Rolling Stone until freedom of expression broke up that group think convention. As late as this month when you saw the reviews of the Kate Bush residency in London they all seem to quote and emit a reportage along the same tried and trusted lines. You kind of wonder do they huddle together after the show and compare notes. 

This review appeared earlier in the week for the opening night of the current leg of the tour in Vancouver. Anyone who knows my work on Facebook will be au fait with the fact that I post up the latest concert reviews as soon as they appear. This one, whilst being earthy in it's delivery, still got the message across. Elton and the band put on a damn good show. From beginning to end. And it was the end that got Elton all hot and to speak. 

We've all got our setlist fetishes, some more bizarre than others. However once we cross the Rubicon of the auditorium all that is left where it belongs. Hanging on some message board to be discussed later. Showtime starts and off we go. Once we come out we can then dissect the bones. I suspect the reviewer, Newt, didn't know the setlist beforehand. Which is a good thing I suppose. But he does know his Elton onions. His pointed remarks in regards the ending of the show with Circle Of Life/Can You Feel the Love Tonight medley was interesting. If you read Elton's comments on night 2 in Vancouver he pointed out why he does both those songs. It's his show and all that. But we pay to go in so I think we can pass fair comment too. It's kind of a score draw in the end, isn't it. I'll let people read what Elton said in relation to the review and make their own minds up.

So it's interesting when a setlist  is decided, there's a personal aspect to it and a general desire to please everyone. What do I think though? Circle Of Life with the band in it's MDP version as an ending is epic beyond words. It's thunderous overture leaves a sharp echo in the ear long after you've gone home. However when it's tacked onto Can You Feel The Love Tonight for a solo affair, especially after the rock out segment, it appears on paper to ease off the adrenaline rush a bit too quickly. In June 2013 when I saw him he finished with Circle Of Life solo and it put a calm swathe over everyone. The power of the song is spellbinding and has plenty of muscle to stand on it's own. Can You Feel The Love Tonight isn't one of my favourites though, so it's never going to send me home in a buzz as much as Circle Of Life would do. But that's just me. Am I wrong? Well, no. I think I'm right. Because if I thought I was wrong I'd be disagreeing with myself. 

I love reading any review of an Elton show. Especially those I'm not at. I want honesty and sincerity. I'll make up my own my then as to what to believe or not. I'll never close off the super highway of information that comes my way. It's funny, you read some forums who welcome news, views, etc. but only along the lines of a predetermined policy. A demonstration of autocracy rather than democracy being demonstrably practiced. 

Sometimes though it pays never to be too harsh. Newt I suspect, whilst sticking to his guns, will have those two highlighted sentences as an epitaph casting a long shadow over him long after what he wrote before has been forgotten. You just never know who's we?!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

'Till Touchdown Brings Me Round Again'

More than once in a while Elton puts on a performance that because of it's timing, location and eventual legacy makes it even more special than it was at the time. At the time it was very special for me, I consider this one of the all time great Elton live moments. Very short, not even 10 minutes, but more energy, excitement and exuberance packed into two songs than some artists could fit into a whole residency. Let's kick off this one...

I have to thank Sky Sports for pushing this back to my minds front. All week they've been banging on about the NFL kick off this weekend. Which has absolutely no interest to me. I've never understood American Football, people dressed like Stormtroopers trying to take each other out whilst a rugby ball flies around aimlessly in a another direction. I'm more of an association man myself. However, Elton is a big fan of the sport and the New England Patriots is his team. So with that connection it makes sense that he would be added to what was a stellar lineup on the night (Destiny's Child, Lenny Kravitz) to start the new season. But Elton had his own season to start aswell.

It's Autumn now and this time of the year certainly for the last decade and a half I always associate with a new Elton album. Mostly good, one bad. Autumn 2004 (when this clip was filmed) was Peachtree Roads birth time and is definitely in the very good category. The lead single in the US was Answer In The Sky so where better to promote it than a stadium full of folks and a TV audience of viewers. But some extra hands and voices pitched up to make this unique and ultimately quite incredible performance something to cherish.

I remember back in the early 80's watching on RTE2 The Boston Pops TV show with the legendary Arthur Fiedler. Every week an artist of the day would join him and the orchestra for some hits and covers. Whilst Fiedler is no longer with us the legacy of the Boston Pops lives on. For this special event the same orchestra backed Elton and the band with the addition of a wonderfully attired choir. Which sounded as smart as the looked. 

The first thing to say about Answer In The Sky is how the wonderful Guy Babylon arrangement was expanded. Listen to those powerful French horns, the flutes and oboes daintily dancing. His original string arrangement flourishes with great vigour throughout the performance; the angular parts being sharp in contrast to the easy flow of the more smoother lines . When Nigel's drums kick in they kick in hard, the heavy foot beat and the heavy thud on the snare echoing around the arena. Just like Elton's vocals, whether it was intentional or otherwise they sounded even more grandiose than usual. Definitely leaked outside I'd suspect. The choirs massed youthful enthusiasm spills out without turning the chorus into something like a Billy Graham get together. It's non denominational and answers everyone and anyone's prayers. Davey's signature slide guitar licks on the middle eight are ethereal and brooding. Elton does a fine job on this one, a new song in front of massed ranks of strangers can be a challenge. But he pulled it off. The sign of a good song also. The song was neither rabble rousing nor triumphalist but an expression of belief and hope. The best live version of this song by far.

Once you've got the new one out of the way you can then give the baying masses something familiar to chew on. As it's a stadium then give them a stadium song. Saturday Night's Alright fits those boots perfectly. A past blast with James Newton Howard's classy original arrangement intro to it puts the synth example into perspective here. One has body, the other is a bit thin on the bone. Working it's way outwards, bassoons and oboes and then glockenspiel develop the song's riff into something broader until the brass and strings rise up and give it full life. The handle is dropped when the rhythm sections boots in, Bob's neat tickle of the bassline summons Elton's vocal. The hand claps of the choir add further encouragement towards the line. The (cleverly) added cheers of the crowds in the mix gives it yet more energetic dynamism. Man made smoke and natures wind combine to add a further ambiance of the dramatic arts. A gale force that band, orchestra and choir do their up most to defend against. Elton at the front line feels the full force of the breeze. All of it. Hair raising in the extreme...this edited version touches down quicker than one would have hoped for, but not before Elton lets out a run on the keyboard for a terrific solo run. The battle riff at the end touches down between the posts with a winning score. Whistle blown, Elton has won again!!

I remember getting this on DVD not long after it was broadcast and put it on the surround sound. To say it blew my mind would be wrong. My ears more like! It's a tremendous energetic performance, the pace is unrelenting and the impact of it was palpable in the stadium. When you gauge a moment right, as Elton frequently does, the resulting performance is deemed a success. Because there's no doubt this lived long in the annals of NFL kick offs. A new song and a classic going down side by side as winners.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

'Magna Carta - Live At The Royal Albert Hall With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - CD Review'

As the title suggests this isn't a direct Elton edition. The indirectness though has many links back to base, one of the strongest links in fact. 

Whenever there's a meeting of musical minds it's either a melding of both or a meddling in the other sides head. This one definitely melds, hopefully over the next few paragraphs we'll see the the separations and ultimately the unification of these diverse sides.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra around this time was quite involved in the hook up of contemporary and classical. The Concerto For Group And Orchestra with Deep Purple (1969) not only being one of the first examples but one of the very best. It was a landmark piece and is one of my all time favourites. It's live setting and the first time run through can never be captured. The RPO backed Elton a few years later, some info on that here. Whatever the reports back from both events as to the RPO's attitude there's no doubting they mustered strong arms and lips for their escapades. But it's the main act that'll gain our attention first.

As you can see from that 1972 date, Davey played his first gig that night with Elton. The first time click between the two was and still is incredibly potent. Many guitarists can be described as multi-instrumentalists. Davey picked up all of his tools from an early age so they became natural forethoughts rather than afterthoughts. As Elton fans we can all be grateful for bringing that to his music. Then, now and in the future. But before all that happened Davey was in the legendary folk/rock group Magna Carta. If you're not familiar with them, then Youtube should be a port to call on. The Seasons album that first featured Davey being a good point to start, the title track...or side as is the case...thankfully turns up on this live disc. But with even greater potency. Rounding out the group is founder and ever present to date Chris Simpson. His helming and leadership cuts through here with his earthy voice and equally organic playing. Glen Stuart on vocals is surreal, full of expressiveness. An unusually high natural range a superb balance on the far end of the vocal spectrum. A three piece vocal harmony setup that only begins to describe what's on offer. From a time when good, nay great musicianship was taken for granted in popular music. And cherished. Only once instruments are picked up can the full story of their talents commence ...

For the first section I'll give a brief reportage of what's in it. The date, June 1971. The place, The Royal Albert Hall, London. A grand venue with no time for grand entrances, the show gets under way with a quick fire Parliament Hill. Sea And Sand is a beautiful relaxing piece that welcomes an exotic visitor in the form of Davey on sitar. It's a fine example of their melodic, lyrical observant outlook on life. The Boatman written by Davey and featuring him on shared lead vocals is a more pared down version than later appeared on his Smiling Face (1973) album. Davey wasn't finished yet with showing off, his next input was spellbinding. Positioning the banjo and taking aim he fired off a relentless stream of licks on The Mason's Apron. The tension built up in the Hall as he captured the audiences attention in a full throttled grip. If it were a proper session they have been tempted to put their pints down for fear of spillages! It's a breathtaking example of virtuosity that Davey (luckily for us) never lost sight of. Chris may have suggested (jokingly!) Bert Weedon being responsible for that out pouring, but as we all know Davey channeled his inner Barney McKenna into an outward musical statement.  7 O' Clock Hymn has some incredible acoustic licks from Davey, thrown in as terrific foils. Chris's bluesy at times vocal really works well here. But Davey was going through the full box of tricks tonight. One act of genius with slight of hand was the revealing sound of electric guitar taking over his acoustic strides. A silky bubbly outro from him being pure magic. Old John Parker brings the 'solo' set to a close, with an intro that leads everyone astray to the songs ultimate direction. I'll not ruin it's surprise! Some neat inputs from Davey on mandolin here, not the last of the night from him on that instrument.

All that gives way to what is the main reason why this disc works. The opening half is an incredible showcase of English folk starting with it's medieval pedigree and working right up to date combined with Davey's Irish folk ideology. It's a heady combo, maybe not unique in concept but very original in delivery. As is Season's. The title track of the 1970 album is essentially one side of the album. Which fits neatly into the prog rock category. But there's no categorisation here. Because once Magna Carta and the RPO meet and greet they indulge in some wonderful chat.

The man holding all this together is Johnny Dankworth. Known the world over for his jazz output, his background was more than that. The story goes he had heard the track and something inside him spoke and said there's an even greater thing to be extracted from it. And pulled it out of the hat he did, magic again no doubt. I'm going to try and encapsulate this wonderful section into something digestible, it's over half an hour long and is quite terrific.

The orchestral intro cascades, full of characters and moods. It melodically builds up to the main theme, some great brassy shouts herald the rhythm section that has also joined in. It beats alongside unseen opening credits until the pace slows, they retreat and the band emerge. Some exquisite strumming from Davey holds court here, with swift lead from Chris until they both meet up and harmonise. Strong strings and woodwinds positioned for maximum effect. 

Glen really shines throughout here. Whether it be called spoken lyric or sung poetry, the end result is the same no matter what it's description. His strong diction on both styles that narrates the story that veers from word heavy to hanging phrases never fails. The pilgrim metaphor of life's journey is given a persona and soul by him. 

The orchestral transitions of the seasons are beautiful pieces. This is where the extra time is most welcome. The main body of the piece still has that laid bare feel, the orchestra merely reflects the musical message.  Dankworth's love of jazz manifests itself in the form of a bass solo that is swept along by flips and cymbal rolls on the drums occasionally interrupted by broken rhythms. Davey reacquaints us with the electric guitar again, with dreamy strings hovering overhead. Spring has sprung and the step of all on stage is equally full of pep. 

The most enjoyable season is summer...Summer in Seasons being equally glorious and sunny. The transition from spoken to sung carefully guided by meaty, heavy strings. Stylish increases in pace are superbly travelled. Uptempo playing and singing by the three singers are cleverly separate but joined cleanly at the same time. Chris and Stuart's wildly differing vocal styles harmonise bang on the money. Nothing is out of step. The percussion section ably supported by the brass section duels with the entire group. No winners in the the duel but interplay being declared winner alright. 

But as with all seasons..and years...time runs out. Like a light fading in Winter, the life of the piece is slowly dissipated until it disappears in the night sky. But not before a solo violin and Davey's mandolin lament, reminisce and finally give up the ghost...

...but the ghost has reappeared after being over 40 years in the dark. The light of this incredibly unique venture has been resurrected in it's glory. Recorded with impeccable balance, the opening numbers are an intimate experience that dispels the notion of being in a vast emporium. When the orchestra arrives the roof seems even lower. But the music gains extra strength to hoist it higher than it ever was. Magna Carta in their solo section conducted a first class entrance audition for anyone not familiar with their work. Johnny Dankworth conducted and arranged it with a sweeping vision of the grand and simple that Magna Carta had created. To paraphrase the introduction at the start, three brilliant young men were capable of delivering nothing less.