Never underestimate Sir Elton.
I first saw Elton John at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden in 1990. Somehow, I expected a pleasant but low-key show filled with mellow songs like “Daniel” and “Candle in the Wind.” While he played these and several other fine ballads, I was utterly unprepared for the balance of the show. The music legend brought the screaming crowd leaping to its feet with one lively rock tune after another. Absent the iron support beams, the Garden’s roof would have blown off, causing immense damage and serious injury to passersby.
I approached Elton’s new live album, One Night Only, with similarly mistaken hesitation. Concert versions of The Lion King‘s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and some of his more recent, saccharine material struck me as unappealing. The bad news is that this Universal Records release features that song (which earned Elton an Academy Award in 1995) and another snoozer called “Sacrifice.” The far-better news is that the remaining 15 songs include worthy ballads such as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and many raucous renditions of his major rock hits.
“The Bitch is Back” and “Crocodile Rock” crackle with on-stage energy, as does this entire recording. Guest singer Anastacia adds even more verve to “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” while Bryan Adams helps make “Sad Songs” anything but.
Despite decades of clean living, Elton’s voice is huskier here than on his LPs from the 1970s. His throat’s occasional growls give extra soul and muscle to several tunes including “Philadelphia Freedom” and, appropriately enough, “I’m Still Standing.”
Elton’s piano playing is clearer and crisper than ever. He beautifully teases the audience with the shy tap on a sole piano key that unmistakably launches “Bennie & the Jets.” In other songs, the notes surge forth as Elton’s fingers fly over the ivories as if possessed by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Bass player Bob Birch and guitarists Davey Johnstone and John Jorgenson are especially impressive among Elton’s first-rate sidemen. Acclaimed producer Phil Ramone brought this entire album from performances at Madison Square Garden last October 20 and 21 to market in just six weeks. He has engineered a CD with delicious sound quality. The bright cherries and peeled bananas that surround Elton John on the album cover add to the flavor.
Imagine my pleasant surprise, after flying to Los Angeles for vacation last month, when my rental car included a CD player. Alas, I had left my review copy of One Night Only home alone in New York. As “Philadelphia Freedom” bounced around my brain, I began jonesing for this album. En route to Palm Springs — where my family and I gathered to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary — I took two detours. I drove around dreary Riverside and later a shopping center in Moreno Valley until I finally secured my west-coast copy of “One Night Only.” I slipped it into the CD player and sped back onto Highway 60, feeling as relieved as a smoker who has stumbled upon a cigarette after spending a week in the desert without Camels.
This bizarre behavior is less a testimonial to one listener’s zeal than a small monument to Sir Elton’s artistry.
For more information, go to www.eltonjohn.com.