Saturday, July 18, 2015

'Elton & Band Live At Lucca, Radio2 Rai Broadcast - Review'

I think it's been a long long time in coming...but finally I got to hear what went down in Lucca.

There's been a strange old sideshow running alongside the summer European tour. On the boundaries of the main event a small three ring circus was parked up. At various times hopping in and out were discussions on modern work practices of security personnel, the rheumatology and orthopedict aspects of knees and the timekeeping and number count of the setlist. Reading reams and reams of rubbish on those matters on the various soapboxes bordered on the bizarre at times, downright maddening the rest of the time. If that's what the soapbox died for then, the suds coming out of it means it truly wept. Quite how we got to this is beyond even this blogger's comprehension...but what is in my control is that none of those pointless topics will be appearing here. I'll say this about the setlist; Elton has spent many years finding one that he is comfortable with and one that fans are equally at home with. The supposedly shortened set...I'd call it streamlined...has been refreshed and rejigged. The simple maneuvering of a few favourites caught a lot on the hop. The same people who demand change, if you please.

Anyway, enough of that boring old guff. On to the show...Lucca over the years has always been radio broadcast, 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011 are all safely in the files. This year we got the same treatment, complete with malodian mouths talking over the start of each song. Like inebriated people at an Elton show, do they spoil it?! Not if you let them...Elton's piano playing cuts through them to reveal he has still plenty of fresh things to say, even within the confines of familiar surroundings. The power to surprise, the power to please, the power to reinforce the old values. If the curtain is coming and Elton is heading out, then it's at the top of the world, ma.

Confident with the brash opening of The Bitch Is Back, his voice warms up with vigorous jabs and jerks. No ceremony standing here, the sound mix is impeccable. Crucial of course when the new pearls of wisdom that Elton deploys throughout are clear to be heard. Matt on bass, just by doing some simple yet distinctive licks has now entered my top echelons of bass players of all time, alongside Dee, David Paton and Bob Birch. And he's going to get even better! Davey 'windmilling' at the end generating it's own energy reservoir, which will be needed later. 

Bennie And The Jets throws us one the those early pearls, Kim with layers usually underneath suddenly finds them to the forefront on the chorus. Nigel and John combine tightly here; John with ruffled hi-hat caught in the down draft of Elton. Davey's counter melodies on the jam playing of Elton slip away quickly as he slips in some licks before the rhythm section weaves in and out every so often before it boots everyone back into play. 

The sudden appearance of Davey at the start of Alice on guitar is always startling, like someone screaming at your opening front door. Whilst recovering from that shock, he delays the riff entry in order to prolong the 'agony!' The piano is really up for it here, barging to the front you hear the fully pumped lines throughout. PSI heavy...the chorus breaks with Kim cracking the whip on the synth, the after stings of those slash's slow to calm down. Levon starts with an eerie solo vocal, Elton's voice with a dozen or more unseen Elton's heralding Jesus. Kim with razor sharp swipes, taking his cue from the absent 2Cello's to underscore the orchestral arrangement with greater ferocity than normal. The outro again sets a scene of rock and roll carnage on a grand scale. We're going full circle here as Elton goes back to the time when the piano was the premiere instrument of rock, it's brutal and unforgiving pounding come complete with jabs and stabs that are thick and fast. Then space opens up, the bass stops and a struggle between Elton and Davey begins. Who has the stamina to wrestle control, we'll never know as Davey retreats to safer ground. Then Nigel challenges him, his incessant beating of the snare like something out of the Middle Ages using percussion to drive the unclean and unwanted from the village. Elton responds by re engaging gear and heading out of town under his own steam. 

Rocket Man with it's thoughtful intro, open eyes and silent mouth. A raft of emotions are explored here, going further than any Dream could ever dream to do. If the Dreams on TDB were the Moon, we're orbiting Pluto here. His left hand is leading, the right hand co-piloting and navigating through this new atmosphere. For unsuspecting listener's the song with the the most sudden of vocal arrivals now has the most delayed on tour. Great to see that part of Elton's live repertoire beginning to find's it's voice again. The ending is just as delayed, the last vestige of emotion and feeling is slowly expunged for maximum effect and for longer lasting impressions. 

Rush forward to the final chorus of Burn Down The Mission, and then take a deep breath. Because a shiny pearl will appear. Elton digs deep vocally (as he always does here) but deep down in the bowels of the Elton mine shaft he reveals something super shiny. On the line 'Oh if we're gonna stay alive' his rephrasing of it one of the best jewels he's shown us lately. Incredible texture to it. Sorry Seems To Be...has John with a cast of characters ranging from cymbals, triangle and chimes ably supported by other fully paid up members of the percussion union. The union boss, Comrade Cooper, would surely approve. The final playout with Kim tenderly bringing the accordion to the fore with the strings aft. I'm Still Standing starts hurriedly and speeds up after that. Tom rolls in abundance, Davey's solo is surefire quick and a surefire direct hit. Your Sister Can't Twist may be a post ironic statement of late 50's fluff, but the fluff is blown away when Davey bulldozes in with the nasty sounding guitar, like a Teddy boy determined to have a good time. On his terms and nobody else's...especially on a...

...Saturday Night which shows us why 70's rock was the real deal, even when 50's rock found itself in itself in the clothing of flares and big collars it still sounded hot. Chuck Berry live at the BBC in 1972 confirms that but back in 2015 we hear Elton doing exactly what Chuck did and hammer out a word on every note. He's still clear, concise and fully in control of his vocals here. If a court was summoned to judge such matters, then this example of Saturday Night will be the first and only exhibit. On the second chorus another pearl is polished off. Suddenly he slips into a simplistic rhyming of the words. Monotonal with more than a slight hint of leg pulling. And pulled it off he did. The solo ends with a flourish from Kim, a simple device that stands out above other examples. The outro jam again surprise and teases. Davey, like that Teddy Boy of earlier, takes centre stage again, bending strings and wrenching every angry response out of the Les Paul. Elton with heavy left hand and gentle right, teases the riff until the rhythm section peels back. Matt's heavy bass holds it all together, Nigel's hi-hat snuffles in the background, then a cameo from Song For Guy makes a guest appearance. Matt spots him, seizes him and has pounced on him. All in one movement. Until Elton decides to sweep them all aside and heads off again. 

On a whim The One slowly comes into focus. Elton's whim is indeed just that, throw something unexpected in an unexpected place. Unexpectedly of course! But this isn't a whimsical version, the empty stage allows for the words to breath with open passage ways. Which in turn allows Elton to express them with greater depth and control. His pauses and expressiveness is really on another level here. Less pacey than of recent times, the more considered approach pays huge dividends. For Elton primarly...and for us.

This was a terrific broadcast, the yapping announcers had a much as effect as yapping dogs. Ignore them and they'll go away. The concert was a powerhouse first class display from Elton and band throughout, all we need now is for Stray Arc Records to wave their big wand in their little hand and make it into a 'hard copy'...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'It's A Long Walk On A Street Of Right And Wrong'

300 miles. A long walk. But not to freedom.

Ray Mears recent series about the landscapes of the Wild West on BBC4 finished up the other night with a quite extraordinary tale. Just one of many in fact throughout the three episodes, both settlers and natives encountering all sorts of trials and tribulations thrown at them by the diverse nature of the America's. The Donner Party for instance encountering untold problems and dealing with them in totally unforeseen ways. The story in the last episode however ties in nicely with something I had been planning to do.

The Long Walk Of The Navajo as described in the Ray Mears programme has to be one of the longest death marches in history. If the men of Jarrow had their caps at a dignified angle by the end of their march, empty of stomach but still upright, the Navajo certainly kept their heads in an equally proud position by the time the trek ended for them. Which for a lot of them was at all points during the trek. Permanently. Spirit can be hard to crush though.

Yet again, Bernie's essential reference's of US history have to be taken into consideration. Relative to this, Indian Sunset is the most well known both inside and outside the Elton world. But that's only one scene, one tale in a far larger series of events chains. A decade or so later and he would revisit that theme, with a greater sense of anger, a damning testimony and the only verdict to be arrived at.

Before I go on we have to look at how Bernie's chastising unfortunately got lost due to people's Ego's and humours. Like another classic American song from the same era, White Man Danger ended up following The Retreat; consigned to the underbelly of an underselling single. Ignominious at best, a disgrace at worst. J'accuse David Geffen yet again. One day he will have to be brought to book (especially to explain this period) for his machinations that nearly dealt a fatal blow to Elton's recording career. Without going into all the details of it again, this piece here explains it nicely. To recap, the 1980 album by Elton with the correct tracklisting, especially if it had been a single disc could, nay would have propelled Elton back to the top of the album charts. Instead the harder edged songs, both lyrically and soundwise were ditched for a more sweeter flavour. Bad for teeth and ears. Alas, the chance was lost and the quality material that emanated out of the south of France was left to wither on the vine. Not a good recommendation coming from that part of the world.

Anyway, back to now. Bernie is always at his best when rugby tackling the serious issues head on. Unflinching here, he takes out both legs of his opponent. The team in the white shirts. If American Triangle was non partisan, there's no doubting about the colours being nailed here and to what. Bernie's opinionated and justly offered view is atypical of his output over the last 50 years. His early detached, latterly deeply involved insights on many related issues hopefully will be evident on the new album. Whenever that will that be...I must check my piece of string.

Clocking in at over five minutes, it's not lyrically abundant like Indian Sunset but it's short and direct like an arrow flying through the air. And like said arrow it's impact when it hits the target dead on is brutal. Inflammatory in concept, incendiary in description and condemning of his own white race. Just let that idea sink in. The pure uniqueness of it. The setup of the tome is simple, two protagonists in each corner. In the white corner the 'White Man' shadow boxing with certainty of victory. Might is right being his motto, 'he feels no pain'. In the red corner, the 'Red Man' with 'slim chance and none' being equally certain of  victory. The victory of the spirit. In one movement Bernie executes a trial and judgement with the sentence being shame. Unlike some of his other explorations of that vast landscape, this time he employs no use of visual imagery. Lakes, canyons, rivers, plains, mountains or oceans are not needed as extras. Just the representation of two sides, one just, the other powerful. No contest. His taut words sum up the simple premise, extermination may be an exaggeration but to others it may be an undervaluation. The 'White Man' is here and not going away. The 'Red Man' was here but he can stay. But only where and when he's told.

Elton does an incredible job here, from his production outwards. He crafts the music perfect to the lyric with sharpness and directness. The melody is unrelenting once proceedings get underway. His vocal is totally unaffected (the best way) throughout, phrasing precise and decisive. The harmony vocals from the girls adding an extra sense of importance to the chorus. Putting aside the acoustic piano, and leading with one of his trademark sounds of the era, the electric piano, is the correct choice here. It's sharp, glary sound ideal to cut through the heavy sound. The rhythm section of Alvin Taylor and Reggie McBride being one the best studio drum and bass combos he's ever used outside of the best. The drums in particular are huge, the heaviest sound he's used up to that point. In front of that is Steve Lukather's guitar sound; initially like a spaceship coming into land in the desert at the start, circa 1947. Bang on the beat throughout after it lands, it's throbbing, darting sound coupled with that powerful backbeat has slight undertones of new wave. The best influence of 1979 to have been soaked in...the thought's of disco creeping in beyond Victim Of Love too scary to contemplate. The Hammond solo by James Newton Howard with his speedy hand sweeps across the keys adding an almost swinging break in the middle. It's a welcome intervention, musically more interesting at this time in the song than a guitar solo would have been. 

Again another gem from the arsenal of Elton and Bernie that for too long has been filed under the b-sides category to gather dust. There has to be a revisionist look at the back catalogue one day as too much of the really vital material has been left dormant and devoid of the lavish praise it's entitled to. Incredible to think this song has never been released in a digital format officially for instance. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Elton has probably the best catalogue of any late 20th/early 21st Century artist but the worst treatment of it. In terms of what has been released, the structure of it, the final makeup of compilations and formats. 

Related Posts:

'Came The Message From The Front'

'Two Became One'

'I Should Watch...These To Hear'

Friday, July 3, 2015

'8 Lives A Day'

10 years and 1 day ago an 8 month wait ended...but not without a few challenging final hurdles that had to be negotiated. Oh, the nerves!

November 2004. Aiken Promotions announced Elton was to play outdoors at the RDS for the first time since 1984. Taking my Old Moore's Almanac, I looked at the long range weather forecast for the 2nd of July 2005. Plenty of time to do the anti-rain dance by showtime...don't wish it away but time flew (and still does unfortunately) and it was almost time to take our seats.

The buildup to the week of an Elton should be as stress free as possible, if it's outdoors you want blue skies and light winds. And Elton to be fighting fit. And of course available to turn up. Who'd have thought the latter would possibly become the main issue.

Sir Bob...not looking for effin' money this time
In the week or so before the show Bob Geldof announced a 20th anniversary multi act, multi venue concert to move the Live Aid agenda of 1985 further on, to Make Poverty History. Not to raise money but to raise awareness. So in 8 cities around the world from the same 8 countries taking part in the G8 summit concerts were to be staged on the same day. Hyde Park in London was the UK location, a massive plethora of acts to be assembled. As is always the case, Elton was one of the first acts on Sir Bob's speed dial and it was announced he was to play in London. The date of the concert. 2nd of July 2005.

Uh-oh. How was Live8 going to work? Elton has mastered most things in life but bi-location I don't think has appeared on the setlist. At least not yet. In a moment of gross uncertainty I contacted Aiken and asked them what's the story. They assured me Elton would be there at the RDS on the 2nd. Then in the days leading up the big night the schedule for Hyde Park was set out. Elton was to be an early afternoon slot so playing later that night would be no trouble. Then the threat, sorry, idea was floated of special guests from Hyde Park joining Elton on the plane over from Biggin Hill. Thankfully that payload was never dropped on us.

Aiken realising a huge event was about to unfold and wanting folks to be part of it, they opened the gates at lunchtime in order for the Elton fans to view the Hyde Park show on the big screens at the RDS. With 'perfect' timing, I was on route to D4 when Elton hit the stage. I bet he had an inclination to hit somebody by the time it was over. A spectacular performance from Elton was gatecrashed by the most shambolic live duets of all time he's ever had the misfortune to be intertwined with.

First the good bit. When the DVD of the show was released, Bob Geldof was discussing in an interview to promote it the merits of Elton choice the first two songs he sang. And the wisdom of it for an early afternoon atmosphere. But when he saw the performance and how it established the feelgood factor of the vast crowd early on, setting the tone and precedent for every other act that followed he realised, not for the first time in his own words, just why Elton was still at the top of his game. An uptempo, rollicking set that was ideally gauged and delivered with maximum impact. The lessons of 2001 had been learned. In the space of The Bitch Is Back and Saturday Night's Alright he cranked up the energy, found the locking valve and shut it tight. The last song in the set was to be one of those old hand, new dog coming together type of enterprise. But the dog was doped and it's bark had more than a slight tinge of distemper.

Pete Doherty...shortly after falling out of a Stuka
Sometime's I've been accused of going on a bit too long about Elton things. At the other end of the scale my friend Mr. B. delivered a one word review of Pete Doherty's performance over the phone to me whilst sitting in the sun in the RDS that summed it up perfectly. Dire. And that indeed said it all. Looking like a downed Luftwaffe pilot from some years ago, Doherty took part in a duet of Children of the Revolution by Marc Bolan. Looking and sounding like a right Hun (or a word that sounds like it) in the sun he gave a first class display of performing roadkill. The aural aroma was similarly vile. Elton had given over one of his allotted songs to help him out and the hand that had fed him was severely bitten. In between slurring and rambling his way through the song, he cut a pathetic sight with his BIC lighter in one hand and a Union Jack waving over his head like some trophy of war, hat at an undignified angle. If somebody has said ten years later he would be getting 5 star reviews at Glastonbury it would have just confirmed my suspicion of most music scribes. Singing from the same hymn/rap sheet...

'We're off to Dublin' declared Elton and not a moment too soon. If patience were to be milked dry over 8 month's then the last few drops were being squeezed with excruciating vigour. Because before Elton took to the stage we had the 'pleasure' of a couple of support acts. Nothing much to report here, Rufus with his truly awful singing voice and James Blunt with his truly awful bland material took the Michael indeed. Elton and circumstances were keeping us waiting...but it would be worth it.

The 3 dimensional sound that was the Guy Babylon creation otherwise knows as the Pinball Wizard intro was bright, loud and full of strong colours. Bit like the sun that shone earlier but had now clouded over. Those intros he did over the years are truly terrific and need to be released in some compilation form. It's slow burning buildup giving way to a multi explosive chain reaction that was Elton's piano, Davey's aggressive chords on the Flying 'V' and finally Nigel heavy pounds. 

Perspective is always an ongoing feature of this blog, 30% of the set that night is no longer played. Plus we had something going on that is very unlikely to happen in the future. Two recorded projects almost existing simultaneously. Peachtree Road (brilliant album) had 4 songs in the setlist, whether it was a chart success or not was irrelevant to Elton and the audience. He felt it, the band felt it and the crowd appreciated it. Winners all round. Even though it was only out 8 month's it was already being superseded by a current hit single from another Elton project. Younger readers might not be familiar with the notion of hit singles  for Elton but Electricity was indeed a proper chart hit. Lifted from the stage version of Billy Elliot, Elton's take on it (the best, of course) was a classic case study of why he had so many chart hits over the years. An uncomplicated production, the airy verses with Nigel on harmony vocal soared even higher on the chorus as it swept out into the darkening night sky. Davey's licks on the slide guitar leaving a slowly dissipating glow in the dusk. No wonder it was hit in the charts and the stars. And if that's not enough chart Elton for you, his 1971 voice could be heard on a certain rap hit of the day too...what a time we've lost.

No money in the world can ever recreate that sight
It goes without saying the show was a triumph,  Elton dedicating Sacrifice to Bob Geldof in the Rat's hometown. Classic Elton moments that are no longer with us are peppered throughout, the long and varying from night to night that was the excursion otherwise known as the intro to Take Me To The Pilot for instance. The recently introduced switch over by Davey from acoustic to electric on the extended Rocket Man was to become a byword over the next several years of multi tasking by a multi instrumentalist. Indeed Davey is more than just one was that band lineup more than just a group. The much missed Guy Babylon as mentioned earlier did his usual intricate work all the way through. As did his also much missed colleague and friend, Bob Birch. The sight of him standing behind Elton at the piano as both their heavy hands beat a march towards the final crescendo of Love Lies Bleeding was something we took for granted. Another one of life's pleasures taken from us. Too soon.

It was only the next day when I looked back at the DVD recording of the show (no Youtube of any consequence back then, of course) that you realised the enormity of it. Is poverty history? No, but the first trickle of making it happen had appeared and once it started can't be returned. It also showed how important Elton is the grand scheme of these things. When you want the A-listers, the really big stars, then Elton is no brainer to have on your bill. Glastonbury, can you hear me?! On the day he masterfully navigated his way through getting the crowd in Hyde Park wound up early on, an escaped POW on a bender and of course bi-location. But even more remarkable he played for the first, and so far only and last time, two shows in one day in two different countries. Luckily for me I was on the right side of the Irish Sea that day!