SOUND OFF: Elton John Rocks 2013 iTunes Music Festival & Previews THE DIVING BOARD
The b*tch is definitely back! Before a stirring and pristine "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" halfway through a 90-minute, five-star live iTunes Music Festival show available on Apple devices the world over earlier today, Elton John shared some pointed words following a few audience guffaws and jeers at his proclamation of adoration for and dedication to Simon Cowell's international boy band sensation One Direction: "I love Harry, I love One Direction. F*ck off, all right?" Meow! But, as for the show? Wow! Especially the new songs.
Highlighted by tracks from his tremendous, sparse and terrifically adult all-new THE DIVING BOARD album and some hits we all know all too well, today Elton proved yet again why he is true Broadway, Hollywood, music and world royalty - and did so in the most contemporary and hi-tech of ways.
John took to the stage in a black suit accented by red flames - and a customary sequin or two, too, natch - with a rocking "The B*tch Is Back", accompanied by sexy strutting and stripping courtesy of none other than Pam Anderson herself in the multi-screen video-based set, smartly and deftly utilized throughou in the slick and fast-moving showt. Following up on the spunky "B*tch", John then launched into '70s-era standard "Benny & The Jets" with aplomb, effortlessly engaging the audience in the action all the while. Few pop music superstars are better showmen than Elton John and he is near-peerless in his simply astounding musical abilities - both on the piano and in singing his oft-tricky songs themselves. Forty years on, Elton John still possesses one of the most distinctive and dynamic instruments in popular music as a vocalist, returning to songs he sang in his 20s as if he were actually still in his 20s and not his mid-60s. Focusing next on a handful of songs from one of his most masterful musical accomplishments of an impossibly bedecked oeuvre, MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER, John then rang forth with a heart-stopping "Levon", with all the passion and power it has ever had - and with a bit more gospel influence, too; to excellent effect. John's longtime band-mates got their moments to shine, as well, prominently showcased in extended musical breaks and spotlight musical sequences, such as the runaway train conclusion to the aforementioned barn-burner, ending with a rave-up-worthy "He shall be Levon" chant. No, these are not major re-workings of the classic tunes, but they are clearly and cleverly opened-up arrangements oh-so-finely honed to perfection by thousands and thousands of live performances.
"Tiny Dancer" came next - and, perhaps now more than ever, the elusive, enigmatic poetry of Bernie Taupin's emotive and visceral lyrics for this song and many of the others come into full Technicolor by the wizened, shrewd delivery of John. Now maybe more than ever before. He has lived with these songs like one would with a lover - and that relationship informs every beat, pause, note and riff. How John maintains making these songs sound continually fresh, inviting, engrossing and vital is not only a credit to the masterful songwriting of them, but, also, his preeminence as one of the finest live performers working today - in music, on Broadway, in Hollywood or anywhere else. The simple fact he has mastered all mediums, winning Grammys, an Oscar, a Tony and many other well-regarded awards is a credit to his artistry, but the proof in the pudding with any music man worth his mettle is what he does up on the stage - and, accompanied by only a piano, a band, a small string section and some well-positioned sequins, John can still make outright magic from out of thin air. Icon. Legend. Master. More than these, though: Entertainer. What an entertainer.
The first new song introduced in the set came byway of a catchy mid-tempo track called "I Can't Stay Alone Tonight" from John's forthcoming new studio album, THE DIVING BOARD, which was written and recorded in a matter of days and is set for release next week. Having heard the complete album already, I can attest that it is a remarkable accomplishment and the generous preview given to it by a few songs in today's superlative iTunes show is merely an appetizer for what is to come - it's a stunner of a complete album experience, all told, even including three musical interludes and a stage-worthy showstopper or two, too, for the more musical theatre-minded among his fans.
Following the first DIVING BOARD amuse bouche came a frisky "Philadelphia Freedom", then another brand new selection - the instantly ingratiating, seductive and sophisticated "Oscar Wilde Gets Out". John himself has called THE DIVING BOARD his most "adult" and "most piano-based" record and it takes only one listen through to agree. This song is less representative of the frolicking side and more attuned to the fiercely introspective nature of much of the material on the release, such as the lighter fare offered up in the album's new single, "New Mexico (Kids In The Candelight)". "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" followed that and fit well, as did an impassioned - and enjoyably grandiosely sung - "Rocket Man". After all, piecing together a cohesive and satisfying show containing just enough hits to satiate the base and expectations as well as introducing enough new material to make the audience interested in the upcoming release is always a dicey proposition and John's set packed a punch on both accounts.
A selection from his last studio album, the similarly T-Bone Burnett-produced Leon Russell collaboration THE UNION kept up the high energy, expertly utilizing John's boisterous back-up singers and band, augmented by a string section including 2Cellos, before John switched up the pace and gave voice to the elegant and searing "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word". Timeless tunes like those that John has introduced throughout his career are always a joy to return to and this concert showcased a sumptuous summation of an outrageously anomalous - and singularly successful - career. Plus, as seen here, "I'm Still Standing" and "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting" still really rock.
While much of the joy in THE DIVING BOARD will be to experience the full album proper - with all of its drama, comedy, wit, intellect and heart - this preview mixed with a hits show certainly made for a superior performance opportunity in which to catch a star still at the top of his talents while gleaning a glimpse into the new moves he is making. All that was missing was a song from his forthcoming ANIMAL FARM musical, based on the symbolic literary classic by George Orwell and set to be written with Billy Elliot's Lee Hall.
Indeed, perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening came in the form of a sensitively directed and agreeably spooky rendition of the lead single from the new album, "Home Again", backed by a youthful chorus from the Royal Academy of Music and employing tasteful video footage to accent the ghostly yet muscular and rich sound. "This is a magical time to be alive - at least for me, anyway," John said before paying tribute to his long-time life partner, David Furnish, singing the iconic "Your Song" to him to close the show.
As we saw with the first 2013 iTunes Music Festival performance at the start of this month, some may choose to highlight exclusively new material while others choose to spread around the love a bit more - as one can expect will be the case with Justin Timberlake's highly-anticipated set at the end of this month. One thing is clear: the 2013 iTunes Music Festival and its instant live availability on all Apple devices is making for a revolutionary and game-changing music and performance platform to be reckoned with, offering endless future opportunities and a perilously high standard now set by superb shows such as those offered by Lady Gaga, and, now, Elton John.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Hello Oz - or, better yet, iOz.