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Entertainment Music & Nightlife Midnight Sun

'Rocket Man' Elton John performs the hits at Verizon Center

I’ll admit it from the get-go: I’m an Elton John nut. I love the man, his music, his melodies, his voice. So let me start not at the beginning, but at the end of last night’s concert at the packed Verizon Center in Washington.

When the show was over, I started replaying the highlights of the concert in my head. And I began thinking of the songs that he didn’t play. I wasn’t dwelling out of regret or disappointment, but rather out of amazement. He could have played another three-hour concert of the songs that he didn’t perform.

Indeed, his gift is his song.

Last night, the "Rocket Man" offered up nearly three hours of piano-pounding hits -- 27 songs from his vast catalog that spans across 43-plus years.

And as this year marks the 40th anniversary of his pièce de résistance, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the concert was chockfull of songs from the legendary album. He performed eight tunes, in fact, from the 17-song album. He began the show with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the 11-minute opening epic instrumental/rocker from the album. True to the original and with delightful flourishes from Elton and his longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone, the song was a thrilling starter. Elton and band then went on to perform the rest of the entire first side of “Yellow Brick Road” in order. 

Throughout the night, Elton pulled out some rare gems from the album, including the dazzling piano number “Grey Seal,” the rollicking “All the Girls Love Alice,” and most shocking of all, the fast-paced and fun “Your Sister Can’t Twist.”

Of added significance was the fact that three of the men on stage were also in the recording studio and in the band in 1973 when “Yellow Brick Road” was produced. Elton, Davey (guitars, mandolin, banjo, vocals) and Nigel Olsson (drums, vocals) were a part of the Elton John Band then and for the better part of the last four decades.

The rest of the band (Matt Bissonette on bass guitar and vocals, Kim Bullard on keyboards and John Mahon on percussion, drums and vocals) are as tight as a band can be. The five musicians – along with Elton – gel deftly onstage.

Yes, Elton’s voice has changed over the years. No longer able to offer that sweet ’70s tenor and pristine falsetto, he’s become a baritone. His rich voice now seems best suited for his newer songs, but he’s able to deliver all the hits from his heyday, just with a different vocal sound. The piano-playing, however, is as crisp, fluid and innovative as ever. In fact, his prowess has improved with age: His technical skills on the keys have sharpened and his improvisation have continued to stun.

On songs such as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Levon” and “The One,” his playing shined like a beacon on the bay. It’s during some of those songs – as well as “Tiny Dancer,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Your Song” -- that as a listener, you realize you’re in the presence of one of the greatest pop songwriters of this day. That ability to write a hook, a catchy lick, a melody that will stick in your brain – and then the ability and agility to recreate those songs live and captivate 20,000 people at one time – is what legends are about.

Elton played two thoughtful piano-based songs (“Home Again” and “Oceans Away”) from his new album, “The Diving Board,” and pulled out some great surprises from the past four decades – several songs he doesn’t perform much at all, such as “Holiday Inn,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Believe” and “Sad Songs Say So Much,” as well as “All the Girls Love Alice” and “Your Sister Can’t Twist” from “Yellow Brick Road.”

On a personal note, any show in which he does “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the simple yet extraordinary title track from the album of the same name, is a great show in my book. In recent years as well as at last night’s show, the song, because of Elton’s deeper vocal register, features the band and three amazing female backup singers handling the falsetto parts of the chorus, while he harmonizes in a lower register. The timeless melody still pleases.

Clad in a sparkly navy jacket with the “Madman Across the Water” album lettering across the back, overtop a simple button-down blue shirt, Elton seemed ever-relaxed. And this tour’s set design, featuring a mammoth chandelier-type light fixture hanging over the stage, as well as video screens that showed clips, close-ups of the show (and often Elton’s hands on the piano), and what seemed like a “yellow brick road” surrounding the stage set-up, was simple and non-obtrusive.

All night long, Elton could easily get the audience on its feet with the playing of a familiar intro (“Crocodile Rock”) or even the striking of a single chord (“Bennie and the Jets”). Yep, he had us from the beginning. And how wonderful life has been while he’s been in the world.

Set list:

Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Bennie and the Jets
Candle in the Wind
Grey Seal
Levon
Tiny Dancer
Holiday Inn
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Believe
Philadelphia Freedom
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
Hey Ahab
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues
The One
Oceans Away
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Sad Songs Say So Much
All the Girls Love Alice
Home Again
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
I’m Still Standing
The Bitch Is Back
Your Sister Can’t Twist
Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting
Your Song
Crocodile Rock

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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