Elton John was wrapping up a nearly 10-minute rendition of “Rocket Man” at Madison Square Garden last night when his roadies wheeled a second piano onstage and set it up with the lightning speed of a Nascar pit crew. Two nights earlier John had inducted Leon Russell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame across the city at the Waldorf Astoria, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when Russell slowly shuffled onstage and sat down behind the piano, looking like the last surviving Confederate soldier with his massive white beard and cane. It was the first time that Russell had stood on the Madison Square Garden stage since his legendary performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, and he seemed genuinely touched by the standing ovation.
Until that point the show had been a standard Elton John arena concert. As usual, he opened with the prog-rock majesty of “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” before ripping into “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” as the largely boomer audience danced in the aisles. “Madison Square Garden is my favorite place to play,” John told the audience. “It’s the home of so many memories in my career, and not one bad one.”
John then proceeded to play a trio of songs from his 1971 classic LP Madman Across The Water. Everybody knew “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer,” but it was a bold move to break out the long, progged-out title track. Some fans squirmed in their seats as guitarist Davey Johnston expertly recreated his complex acoustic guitar parts from the album, but they were rewarded with a bombastic “Philadelphia Freedom” and a sing-along “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
The Leon Russell portion of the show – during which the duo played eight consecutive songs from their new LP The Union – further tested the patience of casual fans. “I know you like to hear songs you know,” John told the audience. “But we can’t just play the same old songs forever.” Upbeat tracks like “Hey Ahab” and “Monkey Suit” worked quite well in the massive space, but slower tunes like “When Love Is Dying” and “Best Part Of The Day” didn’t connect like they did when John and Russell played them at the intimate Beacon Theater last year. Maybe it would have been better to throw in a couple of Russell’s classic hits instead.
Before the John/Russell Civil War epic “Gone To Shiloh” began, roadies brought out an extra microphone stand and a lyric sheet on a stand. Out walked Gregg Allman (on break from the Allman Brothers’ Beacon Theater run) to sing Neil Young’s verse from the album. He seemed woefully underprepared and it was hard to hear much of anything he sang, but the crowd was overjoyed by his presence nevertheless.
For the final third of his show John returned to his greatest hits. I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing “Crocodile Rock” again, but when 18,000 people screamed with delight after the first note I found myself standing and singing along about Suzy wearing her dresses tight along with everybody else. As cool as it would be to hear him bust out “I Am Your Robot” or ” I Feel Like A Bullet In The Gun Of Robert Ford,” they would almost certainly lead to a mass bathroom exodus. Nobody knows that better than Elton does, which is why we got “The Bitch Is Back,” the long version of of “Take Me To The Pilot” and a gorgeous rendition of ” Candle In The Wind.”
Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson get a lot of attention for their “never-ending tours,” but in the past 15 years Elton has done just as many shows as they have. It’s clear that he feeds off the crowd’s enthusiasm, and even after the show passed the three-hour mark he looked more than capable of carrying on for another hour or two. (It’s almost as if he traded his drug addiction for a touring addiction.)
This show was his 61st concert at Madison Square Garden, building upon the record he set on his 60th birthday four years ago. It’s probable that he played “Your Song” at every single one of those 61 shows. It was the grand finale at this one, and even though he’s sung it about as many times as Wayne Newton has sung “Danke Schoen,” he still poured every bit of himself into it. It’s the only way he knows how to operate.