Elton John and Leon Russell
Christopher Victorio/OC Weekly
November 5, 2010
Citizens Business Bank Arena
See the slideshow here!
When Elton John announced he was recording an album and touring with Leon Russell, long-time fans rejoiced. How often do you get to see one of the biggest rock stars in the world perform with his own musical hero? The album, The Union, is a bluesy return to the two piano men's early-'70s roots, and the concert found them emphasizing new material while mixing in selections from their classic periods.
John strode up to the microphone to introduce his compatriot. "He's my idol. It's the greatest experience to play with him 40 years later, and we are doing a new album that's No. 3 on the Billboard charts." The cane-wielding Russell shuffled quietly onto the stage, sat down at his piano, and began his first song of the evening, 1972 hit "Tight Rope." His four female backing vocalists and full band arrangement fleshed out the quirky, funky strut of the original single into an arena-filling highlight.
Russell, now 68 years old with flowing white hair, untamed beard and Hawaiian shirt, looked more ready for Jimmy Buffett
than Elton John. His style, however, was down-home Americana at its finest. He and the band trawled through a 30-minute set of refreshingly unvarnished tunes, culminating in a cover of the bluegrass standard "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" that led into Russell's own composition "Stranger in a Strange Land." The veteran showman really let loose vocally and instrumentally on this medley, belting out the words and bashing his piano like a wild man.
At the end of Russell's solo set, he silently exited the stage, replaced almost instantly by Elton, who was decked out in a fairy-emblazoned jacket, royal blue Oxford shirt and purple spectacles. He tore into his set with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," wailing his way through the fast-paced rocker. His large band (including two percussionist/drummers, two guitarists, a bassist, backup singers and another keyboardist) matched the fever pitch, driving the furious tempo to its conclusion.
They slowed things down for a majestic take on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Sir Elton lovingly crooned the sly lyrics, "It'll take you a couple of vodka and tonics, to set you on your feet again," as the band showed off their almost telepathic interplay. He responded with his rousing barrelhouse piano style during the instrumental passages, showboating with intricate flourishes all the way. Next up was "Rocket Man," one of his best-loved tunes. After the gentle verses and a loud chorus, the band dropped out in the middle of the song, to allow John to vamp and solo with no accompaniment save for some atmospheric sound effects. "I'm a rocket man, rocket man, rocket man," he echoed, his digital delay effect making it sound as if he were actually singing to the crowd from Mars. Naturally, they went crazy for it.
On "Bennie and the Jets," however, the band kept things earthbound. The audience chanted the chorus appreciatively, and the band employed a lighter touch, while their leader leapt up at his piano, implored the crowd to get into it and generally hammed it up for the duration of the song. After a blockbuster solo set, John announced that Russell was coming back out for their duets. "This is one of the best albums I've ever made," he declared. "This is Leon's song."
They began "If It Wasn't for Bad," the lead track from The Union
. The song is a wounded dirge about love gone wrong, and the dramatic arrangement fit the subject perfectly. The rhythm section laid down a hard-hitting beat, as the back-up singers swayed in time. Russell took the lead vocals with John pitching in on the chorus. This darker vein continued with "Gone to Shiloh," a mournful tale about a soldier going to battle during the American Civil War. The song is reminiscent of Neil Young's
solo work, who coincidentally collaborated on this track for the album, and the stark, rootsy sound complemented the evocative story.
The mood lifted for "Jimmie Rodgers' Dream," a twangy tribute to the Father of Country Music
. It was a pleasant change of pace for John, and a sort of throwback to his Western-tinged material from the '70s. Russell's and T Bone Burnett's
contributions are palpable on the track, and John's band performed admirably on this countrified jam. They switched gears to gospel-inspired balladry on "The Best Part of the Day." In terms of sound and lyrical bent, it's similar to the early work of The Band
, whose song "I Shall Be Released" is referenced in this piece. Clearly, Russell's traditionalist vibe continues to influence John even after four decades.
"This is a song about being alive," John confided, before starting his heartfelt love song entitled "Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)." The band was tastefully restrained, giving both performers room to shine vocally, and the backup singers provided a delicate counterpoint to the huskier male vocals. Before exiting, John announced the final song of their set together, "In the Hands of Angels," Leon Russell's musical tribute to John himself. "No one ever wrote a song about me," he added. The uncharacteristically sweet number reveals Russell's deep affection from the position of being both John's fan and idol. It was a touching way for him to cap off his performance for the evening.
Elton, on the other hand, didn't slow down one bit. "Levon" was his solo highlight of the night. No matter how many times he sings this song, it's always incredible and never makes one bit of sense. His masterful group soared throughout this radio staple. Particularly impressive was drummer Nigel Olsson
, who has worked with John for nearly 40 years. The big hits continued with "Tiny Dancer," "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." An extended piano intro led into a fresh new arrangement for "Take Me to the Pilot," from 1970's Elton John.
One of the most oddball singles in his catalog, it gained an anthemic quality that had the audience shouting along.
After the shortest encore break in history, he jumped into "The Bitch Is Back," scissor-kicking the air from atop the piano seat. The raw guitar attack afforded the heaviest rock moment of the concert, and the song was as aggressive as it was back in its heyday. It contrasted nicely with the closer. "This is for each and everyone one of you. It's 'Your Song,'" Elton announced. Perhaps the prototypical EJ ballad, it hasn't lost an ounce of charm in the four decades since its release. It was certainly a fitting conclusion for a night that was about displaying all of his facets to his adoring fans.
Personal Bias: Elton didn't perform "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters." This pissed me off.
Crowd: Old men who looked like Leon Russell and old women who looked like Elton John. And their kids.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I can't believe Elton John signed my ticket stub!" - Me
Random Notebook Dump: This concert was totally worth driving to San Bernardino County.
Leon Russell Set:
"Prince of Peace/Out in the Woods"
"A Song For You"
"Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms/Stranger in a Strange Land"
Elton John Set I:
"Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting"
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"
"Bennie and the Jets"
"I'm Still Standing"
Elton John and Leon Set:
"If It Wasn't for Bad"
"Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes"
"Gone to Shiloh"
"Jimmie Rodgers' Dream"
"There's No Tomorrow"
"The Best Part of the Day"
"A Dream Come True"
"When Love is Dying"
"Hearts Have Turned to Stone"
"Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)"
"In the Hands of Angels"
Elton John Set II:
"Burn Down the Mission"
"Ballad of a Well-Known Gun"
"I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"
"Take Me to the Pilot"
Elton John Encore:
"The Bitch is Back"