For a minute there, Elton John was worried. “I’m freaking out up here,” he said midway through his tour-opening set on Friday in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “I’m losing my voice.”
But you wouldn’t know it by the show he put on, or the number of bows he took in his amazing golden-spangled dreamcoat. As he sat down for a two-song encore after signing records and T-shirts for some front-row fans, he mentioned again that he’d thought he was losing his voice. The crowd, he said, brought it back for him.
The truth was, the piano pounder’s expert band propped up that voice for him, with percussionist John Mahon hitting the falsetto notes, longtime sidemen Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone lustily belting those famous backup lines (“don’t let the su-u-un . . . “) and a wrecking crew of backup singers, including Tata Vega and Rose Stone (Sly’s sister), doing their best to bring church service to the arena.
Noting that he opened the venue with a show nine years ago, Sir Elton brought a state-of-the-art stage design, with a mesmerizing high-tech chandelier twinkling overhead. A digital display embedded in the semicircular, cantilevered back half of the stage changed from an image of a gently waving American flag during “Philadelphia Freedom” to somber rows of crosses on the new ode to fallen soldiers, “Oceans Away.”
John’s new album, The Diving Board, a collection of piano ballads and would-be pop songs too stripped down to be hits, is his second in a row (following his collaboration with Leon Russell) to consciously avoid flourishes aimed at radio. (Roots champion T Bone Burnett produced both albums.) “It’s the most adult record I can make at my age,” John said earlier this year.
But in a concert aimed straight for the heart of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s majority of fans – he played 28 songs, half of which hit the Top 40 – the handful of new songs he slipped in held up well. “Voyeur,” in particular, built to the full, lush orchestral sound the singer has made his trademark.
If he’s content at this point to make intimate records that please himself, Elton John knows better than most which side his bread is buttered on. “It’s an amazing life I lead,” he said before introducing his band. “I love it so much, the connection between both of us.” In that relationship, the “other” is his collective audience, and he loves to love them, and to be loved.
The show began with the complete first side of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, from the epic “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” to “Candle in the Wind” and “Bennie and the Jets,” with the latter drawing a huge roar after one chord. On the next song, “Grey Seal,” from the same album, the singer playfully stuck out his tongue as Johnstone hit a hard lick on his Les Paul.
Two enthusiastic electric cellists, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, helped bring “Levon” to a serious gallop. The bandleader plucked the players from Croatia, he explained later: “They’re both very cute, I think.”
Deep cuts and notable wild cards included “Holiday Inn,” from the album Madman Across the Water, written on John’s first tour of the U.S., and “Hey Ahab,” from the Leon Russell album. But it was the biggest hits, of course, that drew the biggest grins. During a late-set run through “I’m Still Standing,” “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” John took a moment from the keys to climb on top of his piano and show off his gold shoes.
The tour crosses the country before returning to the east coast for two dates at Madison Square Garden on December 3rd and 4th. “This is a song about New York City,” Elton said, introducing “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Released all the way back in 1972, the song celebrates life’s freaks and also-rans: “I thank the lawd there’s people out there like you,” he sang. His audience doesn’t include many of them anymore, but as long as the seats are full, he’s a happy man.