the new bass player in Elton's band
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The 12-foot screen behind Elton John and his dapper, deft band flashed the word "BITCH" in white LED lights.
And then, after singing the first verse of his strutting classic, "The Bitch Is Back," John hopped onto the lid of his black grand piano, like a mountaineer who'd just scaled a peak.
By this point Wednesday night, it was the Von Braun Center audience that was atop a sierra...of John's hits. Hits from the '70s ("Rocket Man"). Hits from MTV ("I'm Still Standing"). Hits with banjos in them ("Honky Cat"). Hits from movie soundtracks (the "Almost Famous" sing-along "Tiny Dancer").
But the flamboyant English singer brought more than his back catalog with him. He brought his molasses-rich voice and impressive piano chops - the latter's gospel, soul, R&B and blues leanings were more evident in a live setting, particularly on John's '80s material that was stripped of its studio sheen, like "Sad Songs."
Opening with "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," John was in command of his midrange and honky-tonk piano licks from the get go. That said, he did miss a few upper-register notes in the first couple of tunes, but eventually owned those as well. By the time John and his band dug into the joyous groove of "Philadelphia Freedom," the 65-year-old star was completely feeling it, hooting after hitting high-notes like he was 25.
John was clad in purple pants, shirt and a knee-length coat that was spangled-out like Vegas-era Elvis. The outlandish eyeglasses that were his visual trademark for decades were replaced by shiny Malcolm-X-type spectacles with amber lenses. In between virtually every song, Sir Elton strutted around the stage like the most fabulous preacher ever, pointing at the audience with both hands, his mouth agape with attitude like Mick Jagger's.
The energy did slow down a click though during the last third of the two-hour-and-a-half concert, due to a few too many slow numbers, such as "Nikita."
The VBC crowd was a mix of aunts in animal prints, polo-shirted dads, teenage daughters, skinny-jeans-wearing skinny guys, thirty-something gals in feather boas and novelty specs, and even the occasional Nixon-era acid burnout. A group of young-professional chicks seated next to me somehow managed to sneak an entire bottle of white wine into the show.
John's core five-piece, black-suited male band was anchored by two musicians that have been with him for decades: drummer Nigel Olsson swung all night, particularly on "Bennie and the Jets," which John goosed with a bordello-jazz solo. Exceptionally tan guitarist Davey Johnstone added vital texture to the material all night, whether it was using a slide and double-neck guitar to mimic pedal steel on "Tiny Dancer," busting out a mandolin on the deep-cut "Holiday Inn" or doing some prog-rock shredding on his Les Paul during "Madman Across the Water."
The Huntsville show was Birmingham fan Lynn Kurtts' 53rd time to see Elton John, so I was eager to hear what stood out to her about tonight.
"The energy that he continues to put out," says Kurtts, who attended the show with husband Rob. "Elton's probably played "Rocket Man" 3,000 times, but he still plays it so furiously."
This brings out a good point.
You may never encounter a performer that absolutely bathes in applause like Elton – or who seems so determined to give that energy back. Near the end of the night, John and his band - augmented by four female singers and two Croatians cellist (who opened the show playing instrumental covers of Michael Jackson, U2 and Nirvana) – left the stage following a rollicking "Crocodile Rock."
After the near-capacity arena clapped, whooped and stomped for a few minutes, John returned.
He then did something I've never seen a major artist do: He proceeded to walk from the front of stage-left to stage-right, signing everything fans in the pit handed him. He signed album covers. Ticket stubs. What appeared to be a CD-R. Hoodies.
John thanked the crowd for paying for a ticket to see him in tough financial times.
Then, he serenaded the VBC faithful with his very first smash: the 1970 ballad "Your Song," which started out with just John's vocals and piano, before the band helped him nudge the tune to its gentle apex.
He sang this finale like he was reciting its lyrics from a love letter. To his fans.