CORRECTIONS: Elton John’s Thursday night concert at Roanoke Civic Center included a performance of “Candle in the Wind.” The title was incorrect in Friday’s concert review. Lisa Stone sang a vocal solo on “Hey Ahab,” a song which was misidentified in the review. Lyricist Bernie Taupin’s last name was misspelled.
By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
By the end of Elton John’s nearly three-hour concert Thursday night at Roanoke Civic Center, there was little doubt about four things.
First, Sir Elton still loves to sing and play piano. Second, he still does both very well, even if he is without access to his once-wonderful falsetto. Third, he strings together a very long but hardly boring show loaded with great backing players and harmony singers.
Fourth — and probably most important to a pop star just 10 days shy of his 65th birthday — he brings big energy and loves the crowd’s response.
On Thursday, he built what felt like a real emotional connection with 10,363 of his newest friends, representing a wide range of ages, who were packed in 360 degrees around the arena.
The connection was solidified only two songs in, as John and his band rocked through “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Bennie and the Jets.” On both, John’s band — including longtime sidemen Nigel Olsson on drums and Davey Johnstone on guitar — nailed the classic codas as John pounded out supercharged, barroom-inspired piano solos.
When the songs ended, John stood, waving, blowing kisses, walking to many points on the stage to acknowledge the crowd around him. They stood, cheering for long periods of time, as he soaked it in on one victory lap after another.
All told, he did it at least 25 times, and still had time to play about 30 songs. And those songs were well-paced. In between the intensity of songs like “Madman on the Water” — which also included some sublime and soulful piano work — and the choppy disco-rock of “Philadelphia Freedom” came mellow, beautiful pop standards such as “Tiny Dancer” and
“Goodbye Norma Jean.” “Candle in the Wind.”
Despite the loss of John’s falsetto, his voice remained a high-quality instrument, capable of conveying all the required musical emotions. And John, who was never one to sing songs the same way every night, has through that practice developed a flexibility and toughness that makes one forget any quibbles.
His voice never sounded tired, even after the work he put in on “Rocket Man,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and the like. It helped that percussionist John Mahan could cover those high slides. It helped even more that he had four female harmony singers that included Sly Stone kin Rose Stone and Lisa Stone.
Lisa Stone’s stratospheric work on recent John/Bernie
Taubman Taupin/Leon Russell collaboration “Gone To Shiloh” “Hey Ahab” nearly stole the show. But John knows pacing.
Working through “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Honky Cat,” “Daniel” through the encore of “Crocodile Rock” and “Your Song,” he showed that while he and his band are great players, the songs will be the stars long after they, and we, are gone.
Bonus notes — because there just isn’t enough room in print to add everything
The attendance was among the highest in recent memory for a civic center coliseum show. Part of that is because John’s little-nonsense stage setup allowed seating at all parts of the venue. The other part is that more than 10,000 people in the Roanoke Valley region and beyond wanted to see this hit machine and his killer backing band. [UPDATE 1:02 p.m. 3.15.12: Civic center marketing manager David Aiello said via text message that last night's turnout led to the venues best-ever gross profit. He declined to reveal the take.]
John acknowledged one fan sitting near the front, a man who travels “all over” to see his shows, John said. He dedicated deep cut “I’m Going to Be A Teenage Idol” to that man and two other men near the front, who John told the crowd had been dancing to every song.
“Amazing,” he said.
Also amazing: His band’s performance chops. John is still a whale of a piano player, and his five-piece band and four backup singers were up for every bit of it, the length of the set. The band did crash once — the groove fell apart somehow during Johnstone’s banjo solo on “Honky Cat.” John himself even looked toward the backline, confused at what had happened. But the band recovered by the end, never letting it fall apart so completely it had to stop.
That blip stood in stark contrast to the nail job the act did throughout.
The newest members of the band were the cello duo known as 2Cellos — Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, a couple of Croatian cats who opened the night with a short set that included a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” a huge youtube hit for 2Cellos. The pair also covered U2′s “With Or Without You,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” [UPDATE 12:58 p.m. 3.15.12: See a snipped of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the video below.] and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” all with intensity, precision and dynamic control.
The latter quality came through best on the Nirvana cover, where the duo showed that classical training is easily lent to the “loud, quiet, loud” style of the Kurt Cobain song.
Seriously, you don’t expect this kind of show from a
66 65-year-old guy who surely has all the money he needs. But Sir Elton and his crew did not coast.