His Majesty Sir Reginald Dwight (excuse me) Sir Elton John, is back on the Yellow Brick road for his three-year extended Farewell tour. I took in the first of his two shows in Detroit last month at Pizza Pizza Place (excuse me) Little Caesars Arena. I’d never seen him live and I’m really glad I caught his act before he hangs up the duck suit and feather boas. He sat and delivered for a full-throated and fabulous two-and-a-half hour retrospective of his celebrated career. He is truly still a world-class performer at the age of 71.
I shared the set list with my good friend Joe Fu (long-time vegetarian) and we both began to pine for the 70s Elton of our misspent youth. Fu suggested that we do a list in honor of Elton’s swan song. “Brilliant, mate!” said I. We placed the following restrictions on the list:
-B sides allowed
-Live performance featured clips only
So here it is — Fu’s 5:
“Where to Now St. Peter” – from Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Trippy and pastoral, this tune has a rustic psychedelia to it. Bernie Taupin’s Romantic lyric could be about a dying Confederate soldier or a mescaline trip. It all depends on your interpretation of “blue canoe.” I miss Caleb Quaye’s Leslie + wah-pedal guitar that this feature clip lacks (definitely revisit the recording). Elton shows off that full vocal range that he inevitably lost somewhere along the Yellow Brick road. This is Fu’s favorite EJ tune.
“Madman Across the Water” – from Madman Across the Water (1971)
The cruelty of mental illness haunts this orchestral rock exploration. It is tunes like this that made album-oriented rock radio so special in the 70s. Not a single, but received tons of AOR airplay. Elton wails and pounds and Bernie is at the height of his powers with lines like, “Is the nightmare black/Or are the windows painted?” And I love the narrative irony of “Take my word/I’m a mad man don’t you know.” Dig the extended jam on this performance clip.
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – from Honky Chateau (1972)
Elton’s piano and bass guitar melodic interplay with Dee Murray came to full bloom on this paean to NYC. Check out the recorded version for Dee in all his glory (and the great harmonies). The lyric has a lush familiarity to it, even though Elton and Bernie had just come to New York for the first time. I love this performance clip with Davey Johnstone on mandolin (especially the hair).
“Elderberry Wine” – from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player (1973)
This tune is a total throw back to Elton’s early days pounding the keyboard in the pubs. A crowd-pleasing rocker that never failed to get the crowd stomping and clapping when it was a staple in EJ’s live set. There’s more virtuosic Dee Murray bass on the recording, and even without video this 1973 London performance clip captures the propulsive power of the band’s live set. (BTW: Does anyone else think he’s singing “How can I ever get it together/Without a white line?”)
“Sweet Painted Lady” – from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Gotta admit I was a little surprised when this bit of tipsy schmaltz showed up in Fu’s 5. Ole boy betrays his tender, wistful fondness for hookers, I suppose. Lines like “Getting paid/For being laid” really tug at something — I suppose it’s the old heart strings. This solo performance clip is quintessential 70s Elton — dance-hall chording, thinning pate and funky-ass glasses. Safe to say he won’t need a gutter to sleep in tonight. (Not sure about Fu, though.)
So, there you have it — Fu’s 5. Hit me up on Twitter @360DegreeSound if you want to call us out on any of this list (Fugutawnbout?). And as I encouraged Fu, I will also encourage you to scrape out that piggy bank or take out a home equity loan and go see Sir Elton Hercules John, CBE before his 50-year travelling road show is parked for good.
Oh, OK I hear you. You want an encore. Then here’s my eyewitness video of EJ and his killer band doing “Bitch is Back” at the Pizza Place on 12 October: