Nick Madigan reviews Elton John's show at 1st Mariner Arena Saturday, John's first in Baltimore in more than a decade. Leon Russell also made an appearance.

When Elton John launched into "Funeral for a Friend" at the start of his concert in Baltimore on Saturday night, it was easy to assume that he was honoring the departed screen star Elizabeth Taylor, with whom John had long shared a friendship and the mission of promulgating the fight against AIDS.

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But three songs later, John made his intentions clear, dedicating the concert to the late Guy Babylon, a Baltimore native who had been John's keyboard player for a decade -- they had played more than 1,300 gigs together -- when he died of a heart attack in 2009.

"He was a huge Orioles and Ravens fan," John told the sold-out hall at the 1st Mariner Arena, drawing a thunderous response, and said that although Babylon lived in California, his heart had always remained in Baltimore.

"Guy, wherever you are -- this show is for you," John said, touching the first notes of "Levon," one of his most evocative peans of biography.

For years one of the more flamboyant performers in rock, John, who turned 64 on Friday, has mellowed only his outfits.

Attired in his now trademark coattails, neatly buttoned around his plump frame, he remains as energetic as ever, plowing boisterously through a musical canon spanning four decades, songs like "Madman Across the Water," "Tiny Dancer," "Candle in the Wind," "Your Song" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" -- all a trigger to rattling memories in a crowd populated largely by the gray-haired.

At 1st Mariner, John jumped to his feet from the piano at the conclusion of almost every song, jabbing his finger at the audience, exhorting them to even greater enthusiasm.

This is a man who, not surprisingly, covets applause. But at one point, as he introduced his band - including guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him since the beginning - John spoke of the privilege of a lifetime of singing songs and getting paid for it, and sounded grateful for the chances he's had.

It was a revealing note of modesty in a performer known for outré showmanship.

It was also clear, though, that time has taken its toll. While his voice has lost none of its volume or vigor, John pitches it lower, most high notes having surrendered to the vagaries of age, smoking and high living. Perhaps in an effort to compensate, John's delivery is augmented -- excessively, in my view -- by sometimes prodigious amounts of echo and reverb, so that songs that sound tender and soulful on his albums sound forced and even harsh from the stage.

But if John -- who recently adopted a baby -- was showing signs of longevity, his guest of honor for the evening appeared positively centenarian. Leon Russell, who was inducted on March 14 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and who will turn 69 next month, shuffled onto the stage with the aid of a cane, his face obscured by a voluminous white beard and sunglasses, his equally white hair cascading down his back from under a white, wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

Stiffly taking his seat at a second grand piano, Russell loosened up only in the tips of his fingers, deftly tinkering the keyboard as he and John delivered a handful of songs from "The Union," the album they released together last fall.

And yet Russell's willingness to go out on the road and plug the album is a testament to his own fortitude, considering he underwent brain surgery shortly before recording "The Union" and has been in frail health since.

His voice, vaguely reminiscent of Willie Nelson's, was clear and strong, and recalled the heyday of his career as a session man and performer in the 1970s, when he played with everyone from George Harrison to Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.

At first glance, his pairing with Elton John might have seemed a mismatch, given Russell's abhorrence for histrionics and glittery showbiz, but John made clear his connection to him by saying he had "idolized" Russell and his talent decades ago, when he sometimes opened concerts for the older player. "He's my hero, my friend," John told the crowd.

Together, the pair pounded the pianos and wailed, and if members of the audience were not as enthused over the unfamiliar new songs, they at least encouraged the musicians to kick out the jams.

Unintentionally or not, one of their songs together, "Never Too Old," might have summed up the ethos of the evening -- two veterans, fighting on despite the advancing years and drawing cheers as they did.

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"You're never too old," John said when the song was over. "And you're never too young."

(Photos: Elton John at 1st Mariner Arena (Colby Ware/Special to the Sun)

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