Captain Fantastic, once and always

by Ryan Snyder


Saturday night was a rare occasion for Elton John, and he couldn’t even have known it. An obscurity among one of the most indefatigable catalogs in all of popular music, the temerity behind one of John’s most heartfelt lines, “We all celebrate today/’Cause it’s one day closer to your death” from “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher,” endured a peaceful demise alongside the Iron Lady who inspired it.

Ruffle some as it might (and by all accounts it will remain a part of “Billy Elliot”), it’s a reminder that John never much trifled with ambiguity in his craft, just as his current tour in recognition of the 40th anniversary of “Rocket Man” — not an album, a single — points out that he also did not deal in ephemera. When he sashayed out before the sold-out Joel Coliseum crowd, then over to his Yamaha Grand, the light board behind him lit up, and his well-preserved guitarist Davey Johnstone unleashed a stinging torrent of riffs for the first in dozens of offerings straight out of the upper echelons of the pop and rock canons.

That song “The Bitch Is Back” is infinitely appropriate as this tour’s opener. Aside from owning incontrovertible arena-level brio, its evolution from an unequivocal wink-and-nod to a sneeringly defiant assertion of his identity parallels John’s own performing presence. Like most of the venues on this tour, he was back to Winston-Salem for the first time in nearly eight years. In the greater scheme of John’s touring ethic, he never really “goes” away. Artists like Bob Dylan get all the accolades for touring with no end in sight, but John is incredibly underrated for eating concrete. Since 1998, he and His Band — which includes Family Stone co-founder Rose Stone on backing vocals — have logged nearly 1,600 performances, far outpacing arena-level road warriors like Widespread Panic.a

He acknowledged his itinerant ways midway through, noting that he wasn’t as connected to his audience as he should have been for a long period, though he’s spent a decade and change making up for that time. He showed no lack of appreciation to his fans, many of whom presented signs with their “Elton number,” young and old (maybe his dominion of the Almost Famous soundtrack is paying dividends). The liberal instrumental breaks in “Bitch” allowed John multiple opportunities to preen and pose atop his piano, half in salaam and half in the kind of showman vanity that befits a man who insists upon a hotel room to accommodate his vast entourage of eyewear.

Whatever level of braggadocio John wants to assume is absolutely justified, however. He’s in the Leonard Cohen class of singers whose voice has continued to ripen with age. Now John wields an intrepid baritone that might have erred on a few higher parts early on (most noticeably on “Bennie and the Jets”), but absolutely conquered lower register songs like “Levon” with the tenor of an Episcopalian preacher. When it came to a tense, mounting reading of the centerpiece “Rocket Man,” he owned those as well.

As thrilling as his hits are, John let his band flex on a few B-side attractions: Johnstone and John swapped leads on the gorgeous, at times unnerving, instrumental “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Despite expressing an almost childlike excitement for it, John nonetheless left music from his forthcoming The Diving Board to simmer in favor of concert staples. Rarely did anyone sit — not even for the beautifully, but quietly rendered “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” — but like all things Elton, capriciousness is not an option.