Yesterday, Elton John went back to school. Luckily, it was my school, USC at Bovard Auditorium, and it was free for students!! Bovard is best known as the location where Forrest Gump graduates from college (no, it wasn’t in Alabama). The entire venue seats only 1200 people – a lot more intimate than the large arena’s Elton usually fills. Elton didn’t hold back bringing two drummers (including Nigel Olsson), four backup singers (including members of Sly and Family Stone), two electric cellos (2Cellos), lead and bass guitar, a backup keyboard, but most of all Elton hammering on the piano.
Take the energy from 2Cello’s rendition of Smooth Criminal, and multiply it by 10
The main focus of the event was on the rising class of young music students. For example, the celloists duo 2Cellos were Croatian students he discovered (and sponsored) at the Royal Academy Music. After they achieved notoriety on Youtube, he invited them to join his tour. He also opened with his first songs from his youth, “60 Years On” and “The Greatest Discovery”, which have added poignancy as he is now 66 and just had his second child. These songs originally had orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster, but now he was backed by students from the USC orchestra as conducted by his former keyboardist James Newton Howard. The full band “turn[ed] the volume up” on “Philadelphia Freedom” and he followed it up with two of my favorite songs “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song” The mid section of the show was a Q & A section with an intro by producer T-Bone Bunnett and interview with Grammy vice-president Scott Goldman. Elton continue to discuss the power of youth – the one time when you are willing and reckless enough to “go for broke”. Many of Elton’s hits are from his early records in the 70s and 80s, and while he is still trying to “push the envelope”, he realizes that it is time for a new generation to take over the radio. At the same time he is still actively collaborating and being inspired by new artists. He compared playing rap with Eminem as free-form jazz, described playing at large electronic raves with Australian duo Pnau, and playing with guitar rock with Queens of the Stone Age. The guitar rock he found particularly difficult. Guitar music often follows a standard three chord progression, where as on the piano you have a cornucopia of chords. He described playing chords on a piano as “going into a donuts shop, you can’t decide so you eat them all”. He expressed envy for guitar players who could just smash and burn their guitars in moments of frustration; if you tried to smash a piano you would just end up with a broken foot. On the other hand, he never could be a classical musician because his fingers were too stumpy like “cocktail sausages” so he was inspired by Jerry Lee Lew to just “beat the shit out of the piano”.
Yesterday was also the UK release date for Elton John’s 31st album – “The Diving Board” (available via streaming, and on CD on September 24th). After the interview, he played five songs from his new album. Usually the new songs are, as Elton put it, “when everyone goes to the loo”, but the new material was really good. On the album, the songs are stripped down to just piano, bass, and drums but for the show he fleshed them out with the band plus USC’s brass section and choral. Finally he topped out the evening with a triumphant “Bennie and Jets” (no matter how say’s he is tired of the song), and “I’m Still Standing”. By that point the entire audience was already standing for a ongoing ovation. Yet, he wasn’t done he quickly followed with classics “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”, and “That’s Why They Call it the Blues”. Finally with the band gone from the stage, his encore was an solo yet epic “Rocket Man”.
I am continually amazed by how much sound can come from a single piano. This was an amazing experience. How often does a university concert get covered by the Daily Trojan and Rolling Stone? While I had seen Elton once before at the Anaheim Pond, the sound in a small venue like this trumps any arena. The only thing the evening was missing was the Muppets.