On March 25th, 2007, Elton John celebrated his 60th birthday by playing his 60th concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Unlike the usual parade of hits that dominates his shows, John kicked off the night by digging up 10 straight obscurities from his early albums. Tunes like “Where to Now St. Peter?,” “High Flying Bird” and “Hercules” hadn’t been played in many years, but the most shocking moment came when he launched into “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.” The opening song from Tumbleweed Connection hadn’t been touched since 1971.
Tumbleweed Connection is a loose concept record about the American west written by two Brits in their early twenties (Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin) that had never stepped foot in the United States, basing most of their info on western movies they saw as children and the Band’s Music From Big Pink. Anticipation was high since it followed Elton’s 1970 breakthrough self-titled LP, but this album didn’t have anything like “Your Song” or “Border Song.” It was a complete work that needed to be digested whole. The only single was “Love Song” and it failed to chart in any form, but John was so hot at that point the album still reached Number Five.
To recreate the majesty of “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” at MSG, John recruited a children’s choir. It had been 36 years since he last played it, but it’s clear the band extensively rehearsed and they executed it flawlessly. It was the highlight of the long evening that also featured other deep cuts “Better Off Dead” and “Roy Rogers,” but would only return for six co-headlining shows with Leon Russell in late 2010. Elton’s hardcore fans revere Tumbleweed Connection, but only “Burn Down The Mission” is part of his live repertoire at the moment.
A little over a year ago, we spoke to Elton about his lesser-known songs. “There are so many of my songs that I think are greater songs than the songs that went popular,” he said. “It’s just, where do you get time to play all those songs? But one day I want to do them. I write out lists sometimes. I go through my albums because I can’t remember all the songs myself and I think, ‘God, that was a great song. Why don’t I play that?’ One day, if I get the chance, I’ll sit down and do a concert full of songs like that. I owe it to myself. I owe it to the fans, but I owe it to myself.”
John turns 70 on March 25th of this year. His American tour wraps up two days before that in El Paso and he’s free until it resumes in South America eight days later. It’s unclear if he plans to celebrate his birthday with any sort of concert, but it would be the perfect occasion to finally play the rare songs gig. While that is unlikely, it’s curious to note that with the lone exception of a tiny handful of Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy shows in late 2005, John hasn’t joined with many of his peers and done any sort of classic albums tour. We humbly suggest it begin with a Tumbleweed Connection night. He hasn’t done “My Father’s Gun” and Amoreena” since 1971, and there’s no record of a live “Son of Your Father” since 1969. It’s time.