Elton's Great Discovery
Arie Crown Theatre - Chicago
November 9, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1999, Volume 6, #12
Written by John Metzger
The '90s certainly have been good to Elton John — so good, in fact, that it wouldn't be absurd to call him the new reigning "king of pop." While John's recent output has lacked the creativity and artistic lyricism of his earlier work with Bernie Taupin, he's managed to take America and a good portion of the world by storm.
Still, it's hard not to wonder if John's best days are behind him. Between 1970 and 1975, he created a series of albums and songs that still shine quite brightly, but since then his record has been spotty at best when judged on something other than monetary gains. Yet, there is hope that John is now reconnecting with his past. As the world stands on the brink of a new century, he seems to be reflecting upon his lengthy career, and perhaps this best explains the reasoning for his recent solo tour.
On November 9, John settled into Chicago's cavernous Arie Crown Theater for the first of three sold out and eagerly anticipated concerts. Over the course of his gracious 2 ½ hour show, John drew heavily from his earliest albums and performed many of his greatest hits — such as Your Song, Candle in the Wind, and Tiny Dancer — as well as a number of more obscure selections — like the early gem Skyline Pigeon and three songs from his commercially disastrous release The Fox.
John was clearly at the top of his game, but unfortunately there were moments when the concert sank into pure gimmickry. A giant video screen superimposed live concert footage against a backdrop of clouds, pre-recorded backing vocals were added, grand piano was supernaturally transformed into an electric piano, and at times John's own voice seemed to float into digital replication. The worst offense, however, was the horrific string arrangements that were piped in at the most unusual moments. The orchestrations did little to enhance the majesty of songs like The Greatest Discovery; they blared over faster-paced selections like Burn Down the Mission; and generally, they just drew attention away from John's own phenomenal keyboard playing. His solo turns gleaned elements from honky-tonk, New Orleans and big band jazz, R&B, Southern blues, and gospel styles and fused them into a rich stew of American roots music. John lit up Honky Cat with his sense of timing and rhythm, while Benny and the Jets blazed with energy and was catapulted into an interactive, audience participation game.
In the end, though, it was the songs that survived, and it was John's sterling delivery of them that turned this concert into a rousing success. Ticking was made all the more haunting in light of the rash of school shootings over the past few years; Empty Garden was an emotional multimedia tribute to John Lennon; and an extended rendition of Rocket Man perfectly captured the tune's sense of loneliness and isolation as John's vocals drifted into unanswered echoes while the stage mutated into an otherworldly landscape.
A number of John's early songs contain characters who are social outcasts, enveloped in a sea of loneliness. This, no doubt, is one of the primary points of connection he made with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Not surprisingly, there was a time when John's life had completely unraveled, and the road back has certainly not been an easy one. However, he seemingly has managed to triumph over his demons by learning to accept himself for the person that he is. In looking back, John has indeed found the greatest discovery — the rebirth of himself and his music.
Elton John's self-titled debut is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box