Elton John Gives Back at Free Pre-Oscar Concert

Lady Gaga joins rocker for hits-filled set in Los Angeles

Elton John staged a free, hits-filled set before the Oscars in Los Angeles Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

Elton John knows something about gratitude. For him, it meant adding to an already busy weekend by performing a free "pop-up gig" Saturday on the Sunset Strip, thanking the city of West Hollywood for 24 years of hosting his annual Oscar viewing party for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Fans were alerted online at 8 a.m. that the iconic hit-maker would be arriving onstage in the old Tower Records parking lot at noon, and word spread quickly. Lady Gaga tweeted that she'd be there too: "Get your asses to Sunset Blvd Tower Records! 12pm PT Elton John ft Me!"

By the time John stepped out into the sunshine to rip into a euphoric "The Bitch Is Back," more than 2,000 people filled the lot and spilled out onto the Strip. The normally busy street was closed to traffic.

"We've raised millions and millions of dollars to help people with AIDS throughout the whole world and America," John told the crowd, as he thanked his host city. Since 1992, his foundations in the U.S. and Britain have raised more than $349 million for treatment, services and research.

The Academy Awards and his viewing party were still a full day ahead of him, and John celebrated with an hour-long performance of hits and new songs from his just-released 32nd album, Wonderful Crazy Night. Fans pressed up against a side fence, and locals watched from their backyards and nearby rooftops. Many were close enough to see the keyboard reflected in John's dark glasses.

The building beside him was now owned by Gibson Guitars, but has been repainted with the distinctive red and yellow colors of the sadly defunct record store chain that closed in 2006. (The store's rise and fall was told in last year's documentary All Things Must Pass, which detailed John's extensive and expensive visits to the store.) "I'm especially proud to be playing the parking lot of one of my favorite buildings of all time, the old Tower Records building," John said with a smile. "I could have probably bought Los Angeles with the money I spent in Tower Records."

It was a comfortable 72 degrees as John appeared onstage pumping his fists in a black jacket embroidered in sparkling red. On his back was the image of a giant rose. When the band began "Bennie and the Jets," about 100 cell phone cameras were raised above the crowd to capture the moment. The show was already being streamed live by AOL via multiple cameras. His musicians wore black suits, except for drummer Nigel Olsson, dressed in business gray and white gloves as he pounded the beat.

During the set, John performed three songs from Wonderful Crazy Night, beginning with "Looking Up," belting out the lyrics and pounding the piano keys. "Blue Wonderful" was a shimmering, emotional ballad, as he sang: "Like swimming in your eyes / I dive in, I dive deep, I just swim." John added, "This is a very L.A. song."

John spoke of his long history in West Hollywood, which stretches back to his explosive star-making U.S. debut at the Troubadour nightclub in 1970. It was the true beginning of his career as an artist of international reach. From that early gig, John reprised "Your Song" Saturday, sitting alone at the grand piano for the opening verses before the band re-joined mid-song.

Soon came "Levon," his vocal heavier, with elegant piano lines between the lyrics. He stretched out with playful rollicking piano and a searing classic rock solo from longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone. As the melody accelerated, John rose from his seat and leaned toward the crowd, smiling, mugging for the fans.

He dedicated "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" to "all you out there for the many years of love and loyalty." He was soon joined by Gaga, in big platinum hair and a blue uniform, as the two sang to each other from opposite sides of the grand piano.

"Give it up for this wonderful man," Gaga said, standing tall on platform shoes with stiletto heels, "who has inspired generations!"

The closing tune was a rollicking "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and John stood at the piano to lead a crowd shout-along to the vocal hook: "Saturday, Saturday, Saturday night's alright alright alright!" The fans cheered, and John brought the band back to the stage for a final farewell bow in a city the singer and philanthropist has made his own.

Elton John Set List 

1. "The Bitch Is Back"
2. "Bennie and the Jets"
3. "Looking Up"
4. "Blue Wonderful"
5. "Levon"
6. "Rocket Man"
7. "Your Song"
8. "Tiny Dancer"
9. "A Good Heart"
10. "Wonderful Crazy Night"
11. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (with Lady Gaga)
12. "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"