Monday, November 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Looking Up - New Single Review'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related links:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

'The Cause Was Right'

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

'Work On A Spell'

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

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

'Why Did I Have To'

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

'A Song Of Love Grows Up'

P.C. Lynch and P.C Steele, Z Cars January 1962
Remember that old BBC tv series Z Cars (1962-1978)? Well I do..barely. A long running police drama series it's early years have gone down in folklore because it was broadcast live. That's right, a whole hour of live drama with filmed exterior inserts in front of over 20 million viewers. The reason for this edge of your seat stuff was the live feel would add tension and urgency to what was (for it's time) a gritty and realistic drama. Mistakes were made, but those were to be expected. The biggest challenge of course getting away with those inaccuracies. It's later years when it was telerecorded and then went into colour are generally considered to be the weaker relation. But that's where the urban myth is incorrect. Instead of what in some cases were stiff performances, in their place came a more relaxed, natural style of acting. Taking time to rehearse, work on it and produce a piece of art worthy of the talents involved. Overall a balance was struck during the entire run. But what didn't diminish was the power of the writing. Wherever the location, whatever the method, good writing will always shine though. Irrespective of the constraints of the method of delivery. Some material works better in some places, sometimes by design or sometimes by chance the right pace is revealed.

Inspector Lynch and Sgt. Quilly, Z Cars September 1978
Another one of those commonly held opinions is that Elton live surpasses the studio edition. Which is a feat in itself. Most artists once outside the comforts of the egg boxes on the walls are all at sea. I had Tumbleweed Connection on the other day. Certainly in my top 10, it's a great album. But every time it gets to Love Song it's as if my ears have taken a skip. Because it sounds as if it fell off another album. Which in a way it did. It's mood and feel are out of step with the old west rustic vibe that flows right through the album. Oddly recorded, it has a slightly twee, almost virginal tone. Tepid at best, you get the sense there is something hotter bubbling under the surface. Magma hot wants to say more, do more, express itself more. Cut loose and grow up.

Outside of the studio confines, it gains its freedom and matures. Quickly. In the space of four years it goes into adulthood without any of the pleasantness usually associated on the road to it. Royal Festival Hall 1974 is where it comes of age. Right in front of us. Becomes a fully paid up member of the adult club. Having to 'make do' with the tools on hand, the band at the height of their 70's power if you please, they do what and how they want. Taking Love Song to another level. A level not achieved on either TC or by Lesley on her own version. 

Elton's piano intro gives a brighter, tenser approach than the acoustic guitar. Davey on Lesley (speaker not singer) guitar underscores the edge, his strokes and strums gushing like torrents of flowy hot liquid. The slow burning intro perfectly gauged, catching the mood in a bottle. The song is completely rejigged, the once steady unbroken rhythm has been pedaled back. But what really leaps out is the vocals. Totally re interpreting the lyric, both singers inject their delivery with a mature soulful passion. In order for that to happen the lyric is re examined. The simmering lust and desire is awoken. Words rephrased, the clever change of emphasis at certain times pile strength upon strength as the song progresses. When Elton sings 'But There's No Other Way' you can hear the deep seated passion come to the fore, his sharp intake of breath as clear and strong a message as any word can muster. Sometimes it's what you don't hear that says more than what you can hear.

The vocal delivery is sexy and sultry with no hint of sleaze required or exhibited. Modern singers take note. No need to strip off or ham it up to get the sentiment across. The belief of the words and the reworking of the songs delivery makes Love Song 'grown up'. No mistake is evident in this stunning live delivery, nor was any made in the studio or in the writing. It's just a case of finding the right balance; the same leads with different support can find the right method and then put it across in a way that was never envisaged in the first place. This version was only performed once but that's all we need. You can only grow up once. Being there is often better than getting there.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

'The Pain Never Goes Away'

You know when you get the news that somebody has passed unexpectedly. That empty feeling with your innards suddenly becoming a huge vacuum. Soul and heart absent with leave. 

Multiply that 10 times when I heard Guy Babylon had passed 6 years ago today. Only a few weeka earlier I'd seen him on stage in Limerick and as per usual gave a masterclass in perfection. Thankfully all the great moments in the studio and on stage have been preserved forever. Time may diminish the body but it can never destroy the legacy.

A few weeks ago a discussion about Guy appeared and somebody asked about the working relationship between Elton and guy. How did they got along? Elton trusted Guy with everything. From the studio to the stage. People would be amazed if they knew the amount of after hours work Guy spent on all the albums he played on. The sheer volume of parts he added to each and every song that were sometimes used and mostly weren't is mind boggling. Whether they got lost in the mix was irrelevant to him. Like any perfectionist in any field, as long as he knew they were there that was all that mattered. By not having done so he'd have felt his job wasn't complete. That attention to detail only comes from someone who felt the music and that was to become clear in the live work. Nothing he ever put down was unnecessary, all the parts were carefully constructed layers that even when hidden still mattered. When he started out playing with Elton he was at the cutting edge of synth technology, he gave the albums a contemporary sound whilst at the same time never forgetting the basics of his keyboard heritage. So much so by the time of his last album appearance he got right back to the early days of synthesized keyboard sounds by adding Mellotron on CATK. The last sound we heard him play on an Elton album.

Right from '88 onwards you can hear him take Elton's live sound apart and rebuild it into something solid and with deep foundations. If you listen to the Elton live sound today that all stems from Guy. He reined in all the orchestral arrangements that appeared on disc, everyone from Buckmaster to Newton Howard to his own; created and arranged the programming in such a way that when he played them every night on tour it came across sympathetically and accurate. His synth work was given equal care, Funeral For A Friend sounded better live than it did on disc for example. Simple pauses and slight emphasis on certain lines gave it a bigger, more panoramic sound. The three dimensional sounding intro's he created for Bennie and Pinball Wizard were to become an integral part of The Red Piano show. The montage segments that he did for The One and Made In England tour's to open the sets each night again showed his flair in creativity and at the same time reinventing Elton's music for the extended crossover point of 20th into 21st centuries. He could be flashy when he wanted and be restrained as needs be. That sums up Elton's music also.

By having somebody in the studio who was capable of taking the soundscapes that were created in that environment for disc and be able to take them out on the road and put them across with no deterioration in sound quality or means of delivery was truly blessing. He may have left us in 2009 but the fact that his same rig and setup is still used by Kim Bullard half way through the 2010's says it all. Time may diminish the body but it can never destroy the legacy.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

'The Piano Makes Its Stand'

The Marquee, Cork. June 2011. A significant date in terms of Elton history. Why? Because we got to hear Funeral For A Friend played three times in succession. All because the piano broke down. Cue man with little screwdriver, twiddling the twiddly bits and Hey presto he was like Ahab off and running. Elton's current piano the Yamaha, is in Elton's own words that night, the Ferrari of pianos. And who can argue. If you're going for speed with good handling and a sweet sounding motor then he's riding the right horse. But it's not always been the case that the live piano has had such a high degree of engineering. Elton being the first and foremost of the piano players that reached vast live audiences he has (with the help of the men with the screwdrivers) really been to the forefront of developing a live piano sound that is truly the best. Ground was broke...before the piano broke.

They say the first taste of you food you make is with your eyes. Our meal of choice is Elton as most of us who are Elton fans are first and foremost listeners. So when we head out for a night at ‘his place’ our ears will be our eyes and taste buds all rolled into one. Trying to describe to someone who has never heard Elton's live piano would be like reading a review of an album that you've never heard and making all sorts of deductions. Then again, that may be possible...even on this blog...but one thing is for sure. The sound in the auditorium can never be repeated at home. Putting aside the acoustics of the venue, the mixing and the sheer volume it's the actual sound the piano makes that is impossible to replicate. The sheer depth of it, the power that flashes out like an unseen shockwave each time Elton hits a key. By the time it hits your gut, you’ve got a pretty deep hole gouged out. But it's also the clarity of the whole procedure. Elton's little nuances in how light and heavy his touch relayed from his finger tips to our ears with zero lose of translation. And that’s the key.

By the time we get to hear a live show disc any imperfections can be rendered inaudible. Remixing can push his sound up and down to the mixers to one’s own satisfaction. Not always to the listener's of course. If Elton's people are doing a sound mix and the broadcast host use it then all is well. If somebody else thinks they know best, then disaster can strike. But that's something for a future blog post, this time we'll focus on how Elton has developed with the aid of cutting edge technology a piano sound that can hack it like the Martini girl. Anytime, anywhere etc.

Back in the 70's the live piano sound in stadium shows was distant and indistinct in amongst the band mix. On its own it had a 'sticky' sound, like as if the hammers had drying glue on them. Wings and Pink Floyd outside of the Elton world are testament to that. A sound that didn't really carry or last long wasn’t s true live representation of what he was all about in terms of getting his sound across. When he played indoor venues the sound was superior. Up to that period of time technicians were well versed in setting up pianos for live music indoors. But Elton’s style of music demanded new advances in micing and mixing, amplification was going to be key to any future developments. But outdoors had never been really done before and as Elton around 1975 was expanding into the stadium field then the boffins were going to have to rewire the mother board. Running alongside all of this was the advances on the mixing. The piano sound on the Edinburgh show (1976) and the Rainbow Theatre (1977) are probably the zenith achieved during that time period in terms of the ‘purest’ acoustic sound generated. They had the ‘base’ sound perfected and were now able to do exciting things with it .Going as far as they probably could with that model, in to view comes a white charger to lead a new offensive.

So when what is commonly known as the ‘White Steinway' appeared on tour in 1980 it brought a whole new dynamic to Elton's live piano style. No coincidence that the golden age of solo's started around this time I suspect. No longer hampered by an underpowered unit, Elton felt comfortable playing a device that responded to his needs, desires and moods. If ever musician and instrument became one, then this was certainly the eve of conception. Where was previously a piano sound that muddy at best, lost altogether at worst, in its place stepped a sharper more brighter sound. It's almost metallic sound, like aluminum reflecting bright sunshine with heat, it cut through even the most aggressive (as all the shows in the 80's were up to 1986) of band mixes that you never felt Elton was overborne by those around him. In fact because he could 'mix it' (on all senses) he could battle, be in tandem and in some cases outdo Davey on guitar such was the verocity of his playing. Like I said earlier, he was finally at ease with an instrument. He wasn't the sideshow sound to the sounds around him.

By the time of the 85/86 World tour which culminated in the terrific Tour De Force, he had succumbed to modern technology and added the MIDI hookup to the old beast. Like a new set of colours, a more flashier sound could be incorporated into the more traditional sound. The integrity of the acoustic sound was never devalued, nor was the added colour anything off a Klaus Wunderlich album. It was interwoven, especially when Elton was solo at the piano, to flesh out parts that detailed what could have been hidden otherwise. So the age of digital had finally arrived for Elton onstage. How would he take it on to the step.

Roland. A name in the 80's that conjures up a wide variety of emotions. Whether it be rat's or past pupils of Grange Hill, the piano that Elton used in the late 80's/early 90's certainly has a great reputation among the piano playing public. But for the piano listening public something didn't sound right. I've mentioned it's failings as s standalone instrument elsewhere, so we'll move along. Because at the request of Elton, a new piano was sought after he got fed of looking at everyone straight ahead for those few years.

In 1993 during the short tour with Ray Cooper the white Steinway reappeared for the first few shows. Then a black Yamaha at the subsequent shows. Essentially what was happening here Elton was road testing both machines to see how he felt with them, the first hurdle to be jumped. And how they sounded on the floor. In other words, he desired to go back to a more truer sound, organic with added technology that was kind to its roots. At the end of the tour he had settled on what has become his ride of choice, the Yamaha with its various pieces of technical aftermarket addon’s. These are done for two reasons. For Elton as the artist to deliver exactly what he wants and for the audience to hear it exactly as he intends it.

The Yamaha was ahead of its time but is now not behind the times and I think that is best summed up every time Elton takes to the stage. Because he’s still using it. As a direct result of the unseen switches and gismo’s lurking in its underbelly Elton, especially for a solo show, can deliver an incredibly rich and full sound. The string patches he incorporates for example never distract nor detract. Inserted at the right time just to neatly dress the songs. I did a piece  on the Fairbanks show in 2008 recently with all those elements and more are present and correct. The acoustic sound of the Yamaha, which sets itself as the basis of everything he does on stage, is luxuriatedly mixed with the MIDI hookup and in turn they combine to create an almost unique sound for every song. Each song in turn has its own identity. Everything is balanced and mixed with measured textures. The treble is finely gauged; his light touch is captured right down to the the slightest movement of the little finger. The bass is sturdy and strong; Elton’s left is the heaviest in piano rock and every night it withstands that (kind) abuse and the deep rooted power of it thunders loud and proud.

If the music and the word are to be married, then the piano is indeed the matchmaker. For that marriage to work there has to be peace and harmony with all participants. I think the divorce courts won’t be contacted any time soon. I couldn’t possibly give examples of the many facets of the piano sound. I think most folks reading this will have their own. But I want to leave with one piece. No matter how often you hear the same song and the countless times it’s been performed there’s always one version that stands out. If the White Steinway was indeed the peak of acoustic technology then what better way to showcase it than this incredible version of Song For Guy. Some of the high notes he hits at the end, well, if they don’t hit you ‘there’ then your armour must be pretty thick…

Saturday, August 15, 2015

'The Night Elton Set Ice On Fire'

In the midst of the summer shenanigans of security and never ending newspaper headlines in various tongues, the news from the Madrid show that Elton is no longer going to do solo shows came like a hammer blow. Until he played a solo show a few miles up the road in the south of France a few days later. But not being a fully paid up member of the 'great and the good' club I would have been unable to attend. Shame of course, he's now closed off an avenue of pleasure to the masses that has taken a considerable amount of lead out of Elton's touring pencil.

Thankfully the audience tapers over the years have captured some great solo shows. One in particular stands out for me, both in terms of performance and responsiveness. That's right, a crowd at a solo show who if you didn't know the time or place, you'd have thought what you were hearing was those brief interludes when the band retreats to the shadows. This was no Keith Jarrett type recital were even the merest exhalation of breath above his accepted levels could cause a walkout. Of the artist if you please. What happened this night made the concept of the piano recital dangerous, adventurous and ultimately contagious. 

The sound here is better than soundboard; the audience are like the '12th man'. You can hear the sound is self contained but has a panoramic dynamism to it. A crowd that is more than enthusiastic, it's exuberance at time threatens to spill over into something raging and fast spreading. Or maybe it did. And why not. Remember that dreadful old rubbish on telly many years ago, 'Father Dowling Investigates'. Too ludicrous for words to describe it's concept, one of the running gags in it was the threat of being sent to Alaska. Or just east of the USSR as it was then. So you get the idea of how the other 49'ers must perceive that last outpost. So when Elton pitched up for a mini tour in May 2008 it's no wonder they thawed out all that pent up emotion. Reports of Elton being up to his knees in defrosted joy may be wide of the mark but there's no doubt when Elton plays these out of the way places to deprived audiences rather than to the spoiled regular venues there's a spark that ignites between the two participants. Many sparks make ignition, ignition causes combustion and then BANG!

Touching down in Fairbanks, this crowd banged from the off. 'This One's For You' line in Your Song whipped up a frenzied response only moments in to the show that was louder than some final curtain calls in other destinations. That set down the marker, Elton and the crowd 'felt' it so soon into the show and from that point onwards they had each others measure. Like two sparring partners who knew what the limits were. Unlimited...incredibly 60 Years On had wolf whistles during that long intro, the leaden bass notes vibrating the crowd off their feet (nobody was sitting I suspect). The bridge has calmer waters, this deep cut (lovely old phrase) has made a deep impact already. These folks know their Elton onions. I Need You To Turn To which is unfortunately cut has hints of music from the Middle Ages, no time limit on Elton's ability to delve back into music history. Border Song again summons up a holler of a roar right at the start, every passionate vocal and keyboard expression by Elton is returned by erupting torrents of spewing cheers. The opening suite of a selection from 'Elton John' (including The Greatest Discovery) has gone down a storm. Can Elton maintain the musical equivalent of all that energy of Alaskan bad weather being channeled into something more enjoyable?

Honky Cat with it's accelerating final flourish at the end is more than a breeze; the crowd is literally torn up from their positions. Up to where Rocket Men soar...shrills and shrieks are illicited every now and then during each chorus. The din is maintained and sustained, the Midi waves like an airbrush sweeping across with various shades of darkness punctuated by tiny glimmers of bright light white. That's just the main body of Rocket Man, if that was the positioning of the trajectory then the workout at the end is the blast off. As Elton's vocal bricks are built upon, right at that highest point one of the loudest cheers is heard, Decibel meter please...they used to say a million gallons of water was pumped under the Space Shuttle when it lifted off in Cape Canaveral. To stop the state of Florida from sinking into the sea...lucky that Fairbanks has plenty of naturally occurring coolant, isn't it?! The slightly altered ending is Elton taking cue form this response to try something different, something as a payback for getting warm love in a cold climate. The response from the Fairbanks folks...cataclysmic.

Moan Lisa's And Mad Hatters always deserves reverence and it gets it by the shovel load here. A rare moment of hushed tranquility, the crowd mesmerised for a brief moment as they probably for the first time since the show began realise the enormity of what thy're seeing. Elton in THEIR hometown! As I alluded to earlier, Nikita is now so far west it's almost east. And at home. But returning east Elton gives the unfamiliar crowd something that is radically unusual for them. The solo version of Philadelphia Freedom. Elton's vocal dominates here, it's as he quite pointedly lowers the keyboard register and lets his singing do the talking. His technique changes tact throughout, as if he's saying to his adoring audience 'look what I can really do when the mood really takes me'. Carefully chosen piano lines on the outro are truly spellbinding. 

Someone Saved My Life Tonight have the high notes accessible, at any time he wants he just plucks them from above on some hidden hanger. It's an icy version, not icy cold but icy in terms of it's clarity and delivery. Not to mention his always icy mention of the 'princess'. Absolute zero in terms of any sympathy from Taupin about the electric chair occupier. Levon again cheerleads the crowd into a rousing passage to the final hurdles. 'Jesus Want To Go To Venus' being like some rallying call to actually get the aforementioned character on the first rocket out of town with the destination on the front. The outro is like a march of victory; the rapturous applause and hollering akin to crowds lining up either side for the homecoming. Helped in no small way by Elton's incessant changes in tempo and pace, it's apoplexy in the venue at this stage. He gets louder on the piano, they up the noise level within an instant of him doing so. The improvisation elements never suffer, at no time does he neglect them even when the speed is becoming breakneck and almost breakboard.

If oxegen was becoming scare then the Carla/Etude/Tonight medley was indeed like a huge mask pumping fresh clean air back into all those overworked lungs. In and out they go as they relax in silence to the most thoughtful side of Elton's music, the intensity of Tonight in particular captivating the crowd to the point of absolute zero sound. Amazing the control Elton has over the crowd, one minute he has them baying the next they're like docile huskies. But there's not going to be too long to drift off, Bennie And The Jets has the hammers of hell rouse them once more. Elton is now assaulting his friendly weapon, how it doesn't go out of tune under such a viscous and prolonged attack is surely down the men with spanners having high a degree of expertise. Speaking of experts, Elton reaches back again into the musical past to make the old hat of In The Mood a new hat, it's worn with pure extravagance and at outrageous angles. Near shows end I'm Still Standing opens with an unknown theme from an unknown European film, the unseen credits flash by as quickly as Elton hands over the keyboard as he pounds out those heavy muscular chords. With just a slight degree of sinister undercurrent.

In case you hadn't gathered already, I think this is the best solo Elton show ever. It's a power supply that that has a two way grid between performer and audience.  Too often we can been critical of an artist not being up for it, but if the crowd are in the mood then the artist by his very nature is going to feed off that energy solely on pure instinct. This crowd are well up for it from the off, they don't care there's no band. They are going to be the rhythm and the lead. The power of the lyric and the impact of the music is never lost, in fact because of the 'purer' sound it springs out with a natural aplomb. Elton's various keyboard styles are all present and correct, too many to mention of course. One that jumps out though and isn't often mentioned is how he uses his left hand to create so many lead medleys rather than his right. That wonderful technique is littered throughout, no matter how often you listen to Elton live, even doing the same song year upon year, you'll still hear something new. Hearing it for the first time must have been intoxicating and exhilarating on so many levels for that westerly outpost. I suspect the people of Fairbanks seven years later are still itching from the scratch Elton gave them...

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

'Born To Be A Guitar Star'

We're slap bang in the middle of the silly season and if that's not enough they're already running ads on the telly for this years X-Factor. The concept of it has manifested itself into a sense that is now a given, that training from the bottom up over a period of time to try and get anywhere in the music business has now been parked. Entering in to it's place is the new sense of wellbeing, where dreams are quickly created then crushed into smithereens. For laughs. Here tonight, gone later tonight type of talentless droids. No coincidence in the week that Cilla Black passed either. Anybody who saw the excellent Sheridan Smith (who is brilliant in everything she does) drama on ITV a few month's back will see how it used to be. For any artist that came out of that era, just change the name, their sex and the story follows a similar hard, long path. With added longevity thrown in for good measure. If you can survive the northern clubs in England, then anything is small fry compared to the nightly gauntlet of wheel tappers and shunters.

Luckily though during this down period SKY Arts ran a new talent search show, Guitar Star. Spread over four categories of classical, acoustic, jazz and rock they held open auditions all over the UK and Ireland. The full series is on Youtube, I advise you to check it out. It's a welcome relief to see proper musicians looking to get a chance to prove themselves. No doubting that they are all talented, part of the shows remit was to have them mentored by guitar greats to prepare them for playing in an ensemble and more importantly for the winner, in front of a huge crowd on the main stage at the Latitude festival. A type of environemnt where the also rans are weeded out very quickly. A bit like these football tricksters you see doing a milliom keepy uppies. Put them into a team in front of 40,000 at Anfield and most likely they'll fall flat. So the interaction between their team mates and the crowd is vital.

Borne by nature and nurture, born to do it.

Luckily for us in the Elton world we've got somebody who fits everything I described above. From his journey to stardom, via the apprenticeship route, his ability to play with the best and in front of the biggest crowds imaginable. With staying power. Of course, Elton wears that hat very well but as this post is homing in like an over the speed limit pigeon towards the guitar you know it's only going to be about one man. Taking it as a given that all readers are huge Davey fans, I'll point this out to any waverers. The ones who dilly and dally over whether Davey is the real deal, then, now and in the future take this on board the good ship doubt. Stevie Nicks over a period of 30 years has chosen Davey to play on her solo albums. In her opinion, and who are we to argue, he's as good as the lead guitarist in the band she plays in for her day job. I'll leave that hanging in the air for the time it takes everyone to tune up and get those tones nice and smooth...

When I listen to Davey over the years I hear more than one guitarist, more than one musican. I'm not even going to go into his folk, roots or world repertoire. I'm going to stick roughly to trimmed guidelines of Guitar Star. He could have back in the day auditioned for all four categories and flew out with colours. His ability to play to the fore, aft and in tandem with Elton is incredible. If Elton is the heart, then Davey is one of the veins carrying the music to all parts of the body that are the fans. His harmonising through the various multi tracking techniques he's perfected whilst still allowing Elton to be the main man is truly unique. He found his own voice but never allowed it drown out those around him. Even when a second axe man was in the band rather than retreat to the standard rock star default setting of sulking he found new avenues (his electric playing post Caleb Quaye for instance had Alice in a wonderland and Bats in the belfry all agog to have him on their side) to develop and explore and when John Jorgenson came into the fold his rediscovery of the roots instruments helped bring Elton back full circle to his proper place. Even when an outsider entered the Elton recording world, Tom Moulton, he spotted instantly the hook that Davey's playing on record evokes and pumped it right back up to give the song that extra firepower. Like replacing machine guns with cannons, his sliding the fader up of Davey's guitar lines on Bite Your Lip for the 12'' remix in 1977 showcased his incredible slide playing.  

Fingers and other long bodily parts crossed we'll luckily have a fifth decade in which we'll get to hear another classic guitar solo or several from Davey on disc. If not, there'll be a stewards inquiry. More than the starting pistol will be fired from this end in somebodies pick one or two or a dozen favourites would be impossible. Every album he played on has them. What I want to do is show off some of cleaner sounding examples, without any major effects. Just the melody mixed with the power of message. So with Leslie amp off and the wah wah pedal undepressed, lets go for a straight run through.

I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)

This is one of the simplest yet fulfilling lines he's ever done. Emotionally riveting throughout, his solitary single notes are held tight. Almost dying off naturally, his timing is exemplary in bringing them back in. When he comes around again for the final part of it, he does the simple but nonetheless essential rock trick of just upping the notes and in doing so make the plea even more full of desperation. Why desperation? Read the lyrics, as Davey always does first, then you'll  see why he does what he does. He's being used a conduit for the cries of Bernie, being the added voice (alongside Elton) of the words. If it come's from the heart then the authenticity of it can't be questioned or denied. Finishing off with a slight degree of hope, the continuous unbroken spell he weaved for that brief interlude lives on forever.

A Word In Spanish

A while back I asked Davey on his blog what was the hardest solo he ever had to put down and this was the one. One of the most stylish solo's he's ever laid down, unamplified or not. The rhythm in this one is abundant, he's feeding off the lyric again to bring a flamenco flourish that isn't a cliche nor a pastiche. Rodrigo would be proud. Breaking this down from a pure technical standpoint, something on Guitar Star that they banged on about as to whether was essential or not, it oozes a natural charisma. Every time you listen back to it something new pops out. His fingers working the bass notes, seamless changes that need several listens to really get a better understanding of. You can hear his fingers just floating over the strings. It's neither forced or fake, again the heart input makes it genuine.

The two I've mentioned are just randomly picked, I could go and on about many more. All of them in fact. But before we go I just want to revisit one more solo, this time in the environment that ultimately separates the Heinz beans from the has been's. If you have stage presence then you can work the audience like blu-tak. If you can't then you'll sink to the bottom of the blue yonder. 

Have Mercy On The Criminal (live)

Anybody familiar with the 'people's chord' knows that one down stroke of it can drown out the most potent of instruments. But thanks to clever engineering which solved the age old trick of balancing on the point of a needle or in other words getting the balance between orchestra and electric guitar into some sort of reasonable co-existence, Davey was able to deliver one of his all time live solo shots. Making that connection between the music and the audience as one solid bind. As a complete contradiction to what was playing behind him, he just goes for broke on this one. Created by Davey (as are all his solo's), he slices through with the killer axe, slowly. With each swing he digs deep into the very heart of the music, the cuts opening wider as he turns back in on the song. Pure hard rock, the sound is loud, brash and nose to nose. Like embers spreading slowly, the heat is full of intensity even at the start of it. Subtle effects are used to delay and emphasise the crucial lines, at the very end as everyone comes back in and rises up he finds a route out of there that drops down and then vanishes. A star born for the guitar...