I’m sure everyone has a similar story: the moment they really became aware of popular music as a kid. I grew up in a rural area, far away from record stores. The department stores, small as they were, had record bins, but it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff.
Remember K-Tel records? They were to music what Readers Digest Condensed Books are to literature. Songs were brutally trimmed of verses and choruses to cram as many as possible onto an LP. Often there were 10-12 songs on each side of the record. I had one that had “Rocket Man” on one side and “Crocodile Rock” on the other, so it must have been 1972-3. I didn’t know anything about Elton John at the time, but those two songs stood out. My brother told me that, yes, “Crocodile Rock” was a good song, but not ten or fifteen times in a row.
The first real LP I ever purchased was his first Greatest Hits album. I quickly became an Elton completist, saving up my money for shopping trips to Moncton, where there were record stores, scouring the bins for rarities like the Friends soundtrack (with its garish and hideous cover) and early albums like Empty Sky. I followed his career from that point onward, and was rarely disappointed, although his experiment into disco, “Victim of Love,” which my friends and I disparaged as “Victim of Disco,” was a low point. Living in eastern Canada, I never thought I’d ever get to see him in concert. I had no idea then that at some point in the future I would be living in the larger world.
Then, in 1984, I spent a couple of months in Oxford, England as part of my graduate studies. I found out soon after I arrived that Elton John would be the headliner at a day-long concert at Wemblay Stadium…the day after I was scheduled to return to Halifax. I immediately went to Heathrow to get my tickets changed (things were so much more complicated back then) and took the bus into London on the day tickets for the “Summer of ’84” concert went on sale. The day finally came, the last day of June, and I was crammed into Wemblay with 72,000 other fans from noon until 10 or 10:30 pm. Saw a bunch of great acts that day, including Nik Kershaw, Kool and the Gang, Big Country and Wang Chung, but Elton was definitely the highlight. He played for two-and-a-half hours solid. The concert was simulcast on BBC Radio, and a fellow I met in the lab at Oxford kindly taped it for me and sent it to me after I got back to Canada.
I’ve seen him a few times since then, including a previous concert at the Woodlands Pavilion, about three miles from my back yard, that was just him and his piano, with Ray Cooper providing percussion support.
My wife and I went to see him at the Pavilion last night. I was on the website the moment tickets went on sale and the best I could do was lawn seats, but that didn’t matter. It was a great, cool, clear evening, a near-full moon, and a sea of adoring fans. He came on without benefit of a warm-up band, only a few minutes past the scheduled starting time of 8:00 and he played until 10:30 without intermission. Started with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and continued with three more tracks from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” including “All the Young Girls Love Alice.” (Last year was the album’s 40th anniversary.)
The concert was heavy on the hits, but with a catalog like his, he can play for that long and still leave out a bunch of popular songs (He didn’t play “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” for example). He played three other songs I’ve never heard him do in concert before: “Holiday Inn,” “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll)” and “Hey Ahab,” the latter from his duet album with Leon Russell. That song and “Believe” are the only ones that dated from the past twenty years. Everything else was early catalog stuff, but no one minded. He ended with “Crocodile Rock” (see how it all comes full circle?) and the crowd happily supplied all of the falsetto la-la-las. His voice is a bit gruffer and he has changed around some of the melodies so he doesn’t have to try to hit some of the high notes, but he was still fantastic, and it’s amazing to watch those stubby little fingers do what they do to those ebonies and ivories. His arrangements, especially the extended piano interludes, have changed over the years, giving those old classics new life.
Good, too, to see that drummer Nigel Olson is still with him, dressed like a politician (according to my wife) and Davey Johnston is still making those guitars and mandolins howl. There was an additional keyboard player, a percussionist and a bass player. That six-man band made the place rock. Dude’s 68 years old, and he still seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself and those songs, and his longtime fans, of which I am one.