"Elton's created such a library of songs they almost take on a whole life of their own while standing next to each other," said John Mayer about his friend Elton John's remarkable run of hits. That catalogue, created by John and longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, was on display January 17th at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim for Yamaha Presents a Tribute to Elton John. The one-night only concert, which benefited music education, found fifteen top-name acts -- including Mayer, Vanessa Carlton, Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Brian Wilson, Diana Krall, and Randy Newman -- each performing their favorite John hit.
These all-star shows are often long, self-congratulatory, or just plain tedious. But because of the format -- each star doing one song backed by John's longtime band -- and the abundance of star power, the two and a half-hour show (hosted by Will and Grace's Eric McCormack), moved briskly and smoothly.
Some of the most memorable moments were easy to predict: Charles' transcendent and authoritative voice crooning the Seventies ballad "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" was an instant classic, while just the sight of rock legend Wilson on-stage singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" left an indelible memory. Newman's funky "Bennie and the Jets," and Bruce Hornsby's equally fired-up "Burn Down the Mission" also energized the nearly 20,000 in attendance.
Opener Nikka Costa set a high bar early with her rousing rendition of "Levon," complete with all the energy her fans have come to expect. Also excellent was R&B singer Brian McKnight, with a soulful "Rocket Man."
Most of the acts on the bill said that besides paying tribute to John, the eclecticism of the lineup is what brought them out. That was certainly reflected in the performances, which ranged from gospel to jazz. The two jazz divas, Jones and Krall, were, of course, superb. Jones turned "Tiny Dancer" into a jazzy piano bar number, while Krall, performing one of the night's less heralded numbers, "Border Song," was a revelation. She delivered the very apropos lines, "let me live in peace," with a Patti Smith-esque growl. And on a night that featured a number of impressive piano performances, her manhandling of the keys prompted awe from the crowd.
Not to be outdone on his own night, John saved his biggest arena rock hit, the epic "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" for the opening number of his eight-song set.
Before the concert, many of the young musicians (including Mayer, Krall, and Carlton) spoke of John's graciousness and the support he has shown them through the years. The same could be said of this evening: Though this was his night, he readily shared the spotlight.
Nikka Costa, "Levon"
Rufus Wainwright, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
Eric McCormack, "Captain Fantastic"
Bruce Hornsby, "Burn Down the Mission"
Jewel, "Your Song"
Brian McKnight, "Rocket Man"
Norah Jones, "Tiny Dancer"
Brian Wilson, "Someone Saved my Life Tonight"
Randy Newman, "Benny and the Jets"
Diana Krall, "Border Song"
Take 6, "Philadelphia Freedom"
Vanessa Carlton, "Don't Let the Sun go Down on Me"
Ray Charles, "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word"
Michael McDonald, "Take me to the Pilot"
Carmen Twilie, "Circle of Life"
"Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding"
"I Want Love"
"I Guess That's why They Call it the Blues"
John Mayer, "Sacrifice"
"I'm Still Standing"
"The Bitch is Back"
"Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting"
"Crocodile Rock" (with guests)