Last night, as students and fans filed into USC's gothic Bovard Auditorium to hear a performance by Elton John, ushers at the door handed out earplugs. The legendary British rocker wouldn't be dialing much back during two and a half hours in the campus theater, as he roared through songs stretching from his early hits to his upcoming album, The Diving Board.
Arriving in a sparkling black suit, John was joined by his touring band and student musicians from the USC School of Music, including string players, a brass quartet and a chorus of singers. From the beginning, the singer-pianist didn't limit himself to his canon of hits, but stretched back further to the earliest piano songs that connect directly with his new album.
He opened with "Sixty Years On" and "The Greatest Discovery," both understated ballads from his 1970 debut, Elton John, though each erupted with moments of forceful wailing from the singer. "Right now we're going to turn the volume up," he said as his band and string section shook the room with "Philadelphia Freedom."
The night was titled "Elton John Goes Back to School," part of the university's Visions and Voices series. Conducting the show was his former keyboardist James Newton Howard, now a busy film composer (The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games) and an advisory board member to the USC music department. Drummer Nigel Olsson, with John since 1969, pounded the beat.
For 1971's "Tiny Dancer," a modest hit at the time of release, John got the night's first standing ovation. The strings provided depth, not sweetness, while longtime John sideman Davey Johnstone riffed on double-neck electric guitar.
"Levon" began with muscular runs on piano as the strings kicked into place, and John nearly leapt from his piano bench as he stretched out with melodic raging and banging on the keys. Before playing an emotional "Your Song," John told fans of the "huge step forward" he and lyricist Bernie Taupin felt it represented.
The band left the stage and The Diving Board producer T Bone Burnett spoke of his first time seeing John live onstage at the Troubadour in 1970, then at the center of a vibrant local folk scene. "This young English cat came into town with a trio and blew the place apart . . . I was sitting about 20 feet from him. It stayed with me – the feeling, the sound, the crazy, wild attack. It was beautiful and free."
John returned for a half-hour Q&A with Scott Goldman, executive vice president of the Grammy Foundation, who asked the rocker about his earliest inspirations, including Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
"That's what I wanted to do – I wanted to beat the shit out of the piano," John said to laughs. "Everyone who came out of England has always loved American music. It was the best music, it still is the best music, and the roots of American music – the jazz, the blues, gospel, rock & roll, country."
Of The Diving Board John insisted, "It's a record by a 66-year-old man. It's not a record by a 26-year-old guy who made 'Rocket Man.' It's full of mature songs and songs that are reflective. There's no 'Philadelphia Freedom' on it. I've changed.
"I don't get played on the radio anymore, and quite rightly so, because it's other people's turn. At my age I can do what I want."
Looking into the mostly young crowd, John added, "There is an energy you have in the audience called youth that can change the world. I used to have it. I have energy now, but it's not like the energy you have in your twenties, and you're fearless and you go for broke."
The night's next segment was dedicated to five songs from his new album, beginning with "Oscar Wilde Gets Out," with a muscular vocal and full-band arrangement that was louder than the original. "Can't Stay Alone Tonight" forcefully collided country with romantic R&B. "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" was passionate American gospel, with a rollicking piano sound that was like John diving into the pews with Professor Longhair.
After "Home Again," his band jumped into "The Bitch Is Back," and John hopped on top of his piano to get the crowd back on its feet to close with roaring hits from the Seventies and Eighties: "Bennie and the Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," a defiant "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." During "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," John got into a soulful call-and-response with backup singer Jean Witherspoon, and Johnstone tossed off his tie.
The bandleader closed the night alone at the piano, performing "Rocket Man" like it was the saddest song he ever wrote. John sounded like a wounded saloon singer, wailing at the mic, pounding the familiar melody with extra weight and heart.
Then Johnstone stepped back onstage with an acoustic guitar, which seemed to catch John by surprise. John waved him off. His own voice and piano were already enough to overpower anything else.