I was crouched on Jodi Hamlin’s bedroom floor on an afternoon when maybe we both should have been doing something school spirited for South Junior High. Instead we were having a listen to her sister’s records. And that’s when Elton John first promised me I’d hear “electric music, solid walls of sound.” Thirty years passed before Bennie and the Jets-sss kept that promise in person, but performing last Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena, Sir Reg and his band, including two original players, more than lived up to his boast. Leading a show nearly three hours long, he exuded the kind of enthusiasm that one might come not to expect from a performer ripping through a 30-year catalog of hits. But though he took thousands down memory lane (I wondered at one point why, if my brain could retain every single word of most every song, it couldn’t keep track of useful things like where I’d left the car), EJ was not going through the motions of a nostalgia act. At $100 a pop, he was making money, assuredly, but that cynical reason alone didn’t seem to drive him. Despite sometimes-rough vocals, John played 25 songs with genuine vigor. The man positively beamed, and towards the end of the night modestly acknowledged to the audience that it’s a “privilege to play music for a living.” Outfitted in an appliquéd morning coat that even Liberace might have passed by, he bounded from the baby grand—sometimes with one foot on top of it—with all the impishness that his stocky frame and 61 years could summon. He smiled and pointed to audience members and mugged with an abandon Kenny Chesney could admire.
And he played the piano.
My goodness, he played the piano!
Songs like “Bennie,” “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” “Levon,” and the rousing opener “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” became extended jams, Sir Elton’s chunky fingers flying into gospel-tinged R&B arpeggios with his mighty band more than keeping pace. Hard to imagine that at one time Reginald Dwight’s stern father tried to convince the young piano prodigy to take up a military post, go into something secure.
Instead, he became captain of the Billboard charts (No. 3 lifetime). And with that huge achievement in mind, it came as a big surprise to me when, after retaking the stage for his fun encore (“Pinball Wizard”!!) he slowly traversed its entire width, signing every t-shirt, ticket stub, album cover, and random piece of paper shoved into his hands. Hard to imagine Madonna, who is just ahead of him on that Billboard list, taking the time. Maybe it was simply a calculated gesture on his part, but I doubted so. Before launching into his final number, he looked around and called JPJ “a great building to play.” Then he said, quite warmly, I thought, “I enjoy playing more than I ever have.” With that he segued into the lyric—“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside.” And just like the old days, when Jodi and I were sprawled on the floor next to the stereo, Elton John’s gift was his song. It was a great show, and I didn’t mind the wait.