Elton John Proves Saturday Night's Alright For Cleveland
November 5th, 2018
Saturday night was alright for fighting—musically speaking—when Elton John brought his piano-based hit parade to Quicken Loans Arena.
John claims his on-going, three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour will be his last: The flamboyant music man from Middlesex loves to perform, but at 71 he’s past the age of most retirees and wants to spend more time with his husband and sons.
No one can argue that the Grammy (and Oscar)-winner hasn’t earned the downtime.
The unforgettable set at The Q reminded fans just how much they’ll miss Dwight Reginald John. But it also served as a celebration of a prolific, hits-laden career that dates back to 1969.
We’ve all grown up with this stuff.
Put another way, John has scored at least one Top 40 hit for every year he’s been in the biz. Sure, he’s had his ups and downs and commercial droughts, but he’s one of few entertainers to chart multiple albums and singles across five decades.
He’s also one of few celebrities to never take his fans for granted, or fall out of favor with the public (even those who aren’t fans). His charm, self-deprecating humor, high-profile friendships (with Lady Diana Spencer and Ryan White, for example), and philanthropy have endeared him to us almost as much as his pretty piano pieces and rowdy rock hits.
John played most of those hits (as heard on Greatest Hits: 1970-2002, Rocket Man: Definitive Hits, or the more recent Diamonds box set) for his adoring Ohio constituents, plus a couple surprises and overlooked gems, making for a splendid survey of one of popular music’s most extraordinary careers.
Clad in a black sport coat (with rhinestone-studded cuffs and a panther face bedazzled on back), Elton opened with a jumpy “Bennie and the Jets,” rolled through a raucous “All the Girls Love Alice,” and barreled into a honky-tonkish “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” while seated at a Yamaha grand piano parked at stage right.
Later, said piano—and its player—went trawling across the expansive stage on a conveyor belt, affording the folks seated on the opposite side of the arena a closer look.
“Tiny Dancer” had everyone singing along early on. Elton dusted off “Border Song (Holy Moses)” en homage to the late Aretha Franklin. The tune hails from his 1970 eponymous album, which introduced him to America.
“We got a phone call from our music publisher saying that someone else recorded the song,” explained Elton.
“When you’re a new songwriter, anybody recording your song can be fantastic. It could be The Chipmunks, or Norman Luboff and His Choir. But it was Aretha! When you have the best soul-singer ever recording one of your songs, it means so much. And we share the same birthday, March 25th!”
The tune was accompanied by a video on the massive stage backdrop that showed images of African-American icons like Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali projected onto the bodies of young people. Up-tempo “Philadelphia Freedom” arrived with a movie clip of ethnically-diverse dancers contorting their colorfully-clad bodies to the beats.
Misty-eyed requiem “Candle in the Wind” had a montage of a cavorting Marilyn Monroe, to whom the song was originally dedicated. “Rocket Man” came with a launch countdown, followed by eye-popping images of the cosmos. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” featured a psychedelic cartoon animation of Elton (circa 1975) tripping down a hallucinogenic rabbit hole. A keyboard cam gave folks a rare glimpse at the Too Low for Zero titan’s fluid handiwork.
Elton stayed parked at the piano most of the night, notwithstanding a few bows and waves to the audience, so the big screen (and satellite side screens) provided plenty of eye candy in lieu of the dancers one might find at similar “spectacle” shows (Cher, Pink, Britney Spears). But John appeared to be having a genuinely good time: He ended every other number by lifting the piano lid an inch or two, then slamming it back down for emphasis.
Elton’s icy pink beverage went untouched, for the most part. He just didn’t need it (or a potty break, for that matter). No, he can’t hit the high notes like he did in his halcyon days, but that inimitable voice—though lower, huskier—is every bit as powerful as the one heard on …Brown Dirt Cowboy, Madman Across the Water, and Caribou.
The Captain Fantastic composer took time to honor his longtime lyric-writing partner, Bernie Taupin, and reflect upon their fruitful (and ridiculously lucrative) relationship.
“I’m very proud of it,” said John.
“This is a very funny business to be in. There’s a lot of cutthroat people, and people fall out for various circumstances.”
Elton even described his songwriting process:
“Bernie gives me the lyrics on a piece of paper. I take them into another room and read them through, and a movie comes into my head. I imagine what genre it might be, what mood, what tempo.”
For some songs—like the elegiac “Indian Sunset,” multi-suite “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding,” and gospel-tinged “Burn Down the Mission”—the music did assume a cinematic, larger-than-life quality on the concert stage.
Conversely, other tunes had to be edited for length: John recalled how he “unwittingly created an enigma” when he struck the final lines to “Daniel’s Song,” because those were the ones that explained what the earlier verses (Daniel is travelin’ tonight on a plane / They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been…) were all about.
John reflected on how sobriety enabled him to improve himself—then others—in the 1990s by establishing a charity for the research and treatment of HIV / AIDS.
“I wanted to put my life back in balance, and it’s been a wonderful journey since. But I felt guilty that I hadn’t done enough in the Eighties about the rise of the AIDS epidemic. So from my kitchen table in Atlanta we set up the Elton John Foundation. I never thought we’d come so far. In my lifetime, God willing, I’ll see the end of AIDS.”
John said “Believe” (from 1994’s Made in England) spoke to that optimism.
Otherwise, Elton refrained from social commentary, preferring to focus on the more affirmative aspects of coexistence in a crazy world:
“I’ve seen the extraordinary healing power of compassion and love. There doesn’t seem to be much of it going around the world now. But I believe in human beings being good people. When you see something like 911 happen, people just come together. They don’t care what political party you are, or what color or religion you are. They come together.”
Sir Elton’s impeccable backup band included longtime lead guitarist Davey Johnstone, (who rocked out on assorted Les Pauls) and dynamic drummer Nigel Olssen. Percussionist Ray Cooper (who looks the same as he does on the 1992 video for Eric Clapton’s Unplugged) thumped congas with his palms, whacked cymbals with a mallet, and peeled some tubular bells with a hammer. He even got a bit of a solo spotlight during “Indian Sunset,” and brought a lot of bonhomie to the incandescent outro jam on “Levon.”
Bassist Matt Bissonnette (David Lee Roth, Joe Satriani) looks more like a jazz man now than the mulleted metal head he once was, but he supplied the requisite bottom end on a gilded five-string. Kim Bullard (Poco, Cheap Trick) furnished string, horn, and woodwind textures on a Kurzweil keyboard, while percussionist John Mahon added tambourine and vibra-slap for punctuation.
Second half highlights included “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “I’m Still Standing,” “The Bitch is Back,” and “Crocodile Rock.” By this point, Elton had changed from his black suit into a red and white-checked ensemble (and a different pair of bejeweled sunglasses). After feisty finale “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” he emerged from the confetti in a resplendent bathrobe—concealing an equally audacious tracksuit, in which the more comfortable Elton performed the lovely encore ballad “Your Song” and melancholic sign-off “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
The 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer treated the gig like his last—but Elton’s already announced another Farewell date in Cleveland for next November 12th.
So the sun isn’t going down on him—or us—just yet.
The man who gave Disney its Lion King anthems (“Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) and scored Billy Elliott and Aida (with Tim Rice) thanked fans for supporting him over the years by buying up his LPs, CDs, and DVDs—to the tune of 300 million sold.
“But mostly I want to thank you for buying the concert tickets,” John stressed.
“Because it’s playing for other human beings that I love the most, and getting that response. And the response in Cleveland has always been wonderful.”
Review by Pete Roche
Photos by Brian M. Lumley