WASHINGTON, November 19, 2013 – For a sold out crowd at DC’s Verizon Center stadium, Elton John’s status as a legend is already assured. His career, with co-creator Bernie Taupin, includes 35 gold and 25 platinum albums, resulting in worldwide sales of more than 250 million records.
His 1997 single, “Candle in the Wind,” is the biggest selling single of all time. And for his fans, who ranged from the young to the very-middle-aged, each song seemed to evoke a certain memory.
Sir Elton is back on tour, and though he no longer dons outrageous costumes, his Verizon Center performance here kept a sold out crowd singing, dancing, swaying and laughing along as he introduced songs and shared anecdotes, while pacing the stage and interacting with the audience.
Over a 2.5-hour performance, the 66 year-old artist performed a jukebox full of hits, 27 in all, from a phenomenal career spanning over five decades. Full disclosure here: I never knew I was an Elton John fan. His tendencies toward softer, pop ballads never appealed to me.
Or so I thought.
Because what truly surprised me was just how many songs from this Liberace of Rock I actually knew and could peg to a time and place in my personal history. Apparently his ever-growing catalog of hits caught my ear and as he played, the memory floodgates opened.
As John dove into “Philadelphia Freedom,” I recalled hanging out in a classroom and hearing it on the radio while working on a project for America’s Bicentennial.
When he launched into “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” I remembered singing along with a music class back in sixth grade.
Later in the evening and into a spirited version of “Crocodile Rock,” I was taken back to a friend’s basement in the early 1970s, where we choreographed moves to that pop tune.
The hits, like a musical waterfall, never stopped all night. “Bennie and the Jets,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” to just name of few of this man’s indelible musical footprints, primarily realized with song writer Bernie Taupin.
The night began with an introductory set from the 2Cellos, a pair of crazed Croatians that brilliantly beat up their electrified cellos, delivering some amazing sounds whenever on stage – and they are often on stage with John and his entourage – which in itself is a tribute to pop-rock.
The intrepid cello duo, Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic, opened the show with Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” While they looked similar enogh to be twins, sporting identical hair and suits and sawing away at identical cellos, it was fun to watch the individual personalities of these very different musicians emerge.
Sir Elton’s seven-piece backup band, including singers Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon, mother - daughter duo Rose and Lisa Stone (of Sly and the Family Stone), were all in a mind meld throughout the evening. The pop-rock output was given a much edgier sound thanks to veteran band mates, guitarist Davey Johnstone and legendary drummer Nigel Olsson – who by the way, boasted a set of excessively deep bass drums that Alex Van Halen would appreciate.
Mr. Johnstone knew when to riff attack on “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” chop at “Love Lies Bleeding” and display bluesy finesse through “Hey Ahab”, Sir Elton’s recent collaboration with Leon Russell that was fully appreciable.
Sir Elton himself seemed a bit more refined than his former persona. He was not clad as flamboyantly as he used to be in his heyday, sporting no wacky costumes or spectacles worthy of spectacle. During this concert performance, he was simply a music man pounding away at an unbroken string of hits with nimble fingers sometimes dancing, other times bouncing, over the keyboard.
Of particular note during the evening was the moment when the band stepped off the stage, leaving Sir Elton alone to entertain the crowd with just his talent and a smile. Not content to merely rely on yesterday’s hits, he sang “The One” (1992) and “Oceans Away” from his new June 2013 album “The Diving Board,” created with long time collaborator Bernie Taupin. He dedicated the latter number to the armed forces, particularly those who fought in World Wars I and II.
He also sang “Holiday Inn,” written to commemorate his years of hotel living while on the road. However, we wonder how many Holiday Inns the famous entertainer actually stayed at (Not that this is not a fine chain of hotels. But heck, they are not the Four Seasons.)
When the entertainer popped up, it was to mouth “thank you” over and over again while pointing to every audience member hefting license plates and over eager smiles looking to engage him.
The best moment of the evening — when placed in the context of a celebrity who has lived a life of excess and riches with no remaining reasons to prove anything to anyone — was watching Sir Elton, late in the performance, stride to the front of the stage to spend an extended period of time signing autographs for fans able to position themselves in just the right spot. Most performers of this stature no longer bother.
The performer appropriately closed the night with “Your Song,” a staple in his repertoire that acknowledges his sincere gratitude for his loyal fan base.
Sir Elton John may have lost some of his once astounding vocal range over the years, along with some of his creative costuming. But in exchange, he gave his primarily older Verizon Center audience exactly what they wanted and exactly what they had come to hear and to see: a memorable night of music that was enthusiastically appreciated by all.
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