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.