07 September 2011

Elton John in Saratoga: The Bitch Is SPAC

Elton John first performed at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1971, he told the audience. On 4 September, he returned —
and yes, he did sing “The Bitch Is Back.”
A shot of one of the video screens during the concert.

The world of music has changed so much since Elton John got started that I’m no longer comfortable categorizing his work as rock’n’roll. It doesn’t feel like rock, at least not to me: it’s pop music, plain and simple, and part of the proof of that lies in his scores to The Lion King, Billy Elliot, and the Broadway version of Aida.*

Thus I’m unsure whether the concert I attended at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) this weekend can rightly be construed as a rock concert, an art form of which I have witnessed almost no examples. The best thing to do in these circumstances, I decided, was simply to sit back and enjoy the music. And that, I realized, is precisely what Sir Elton was doing, too.

Stormy weather: Even when it wasn’t raining,
the skies were menacing.

Gone are the sequins, the feathers, the outrageous costumes, the flashpots and fireworks and the daredevil stunts. Is it only that Sir Elton is older, or is he simply more comfortable with who he is? I suspect the latter, and who he is, is a passionate piano player, a sometimes exciting vocalist, and a gifted craftsman of a composer. His band includes a couple of veterans, a guitarist and a percussionist who have been with him practically since the cradle, but it also includes two very young cellists, not what one expects in a hard-rock concert.**

In driving rain that turned our lawn-seating area into a mudslide (itself nearly as entertaining as anything onstage), with Irene-related flooding only just receding and a tornado dipping nearby (and briefly threatening the start of the concert), Sir Elton performed for more than two and a half uninterrupted hours. Give him extra credit for stamina. The crowd was mostly my age — or older — though there were some youngsters present who didn’t appear to be escorted by their parents.

Slip ’n’ Slide: As the evening progressed, folks had increasing difficulty making their way up and down the muddy track.

Our enthusiasm was primarily reserved for Sir Elton’s Greatest Hits, and he rewarded us with a survey of many, but not all, of his best-known songs, everything from “Rocket Man” to “Crocodile Rock,” culminating, perhaps inevitably, with “Your Song.” (He didn’t sing “Candle in the Wind,” and since I’d overdosed on that particular number the only other time I heard him perform live, I wasn’t sorry in the least.)

Some more recent numbers, from a collaboration with Leon Russell, bespoke a desire to write a kind of Great American Pop Opera, but the trouble here is that Sir Elton isn’t American. What, if anything, does “Shiloh” mean to him? The music offered no clues. But neither Sir Elton nor his audience spent much time puzzling out the mystery, and soon enough we were back on track with songs we knew well enough to accompany.

Dry look: The crowd inside the SPAC.
Perhaps needless to say, this isn’t quite how folks behaved
when I heard Yo Yo Ma here in August.

Which may be just as well. Elton John’s music has been in the background of my consciousness for most of my life, but I don’t know any of his lyrics by heart. With his voice substantially lower than it was a few decades ago, Sir Elton growls and roars, but his diction is terrible. I doubt that I understood a complete sentence in more than a couple of numbers. Does that limit his expressive ability? Yes, it does. Others in the audience, being more devoted fans, clearly didn’t mind.

For those, like me, who didn’t have indoor seating at SPAC (an open-air venue, but it does at least have a roof), video cameras caught every second, with the images projected on giant screens around and on top of the auditorium. The video was exceptionally well directed, and I was particularly grateful for the frequent close-ups of Sir Elton’s piano playing. He’s got terrific technique, and in every number, it was his hands that communicated most clearly with us.

Outdoor seating at the SPAC, before the concert.
You can see some of us preparing our tarps and umbrellas already.

Jet-lagged and frazzled by the rain, unaccustomed to amplified music, at last I had to back away from the concert, searching (in vain) for shelter from the volume and from the storm’s fury even as I listened to the last few numbers. To an extent, the experience was wasted on me — and not only because I’d flown back from Paris the day before.

Yet I was glad of the experience. I kept remembering the friend from junior high, whose admiration for Sir Elton was such that he became her invisible friend, forever perched, she said, on her shoulder. In a way, I could see her this evening, perched on his shoulder, connecting past and present, influence and inspiration, reminding me of the power of pop music to inform my life, whether I’ve listened closely or not. His songs have always been there in the background, and for one night, they took center stage.

See that teeny bleached-out blip at the piano?
That’s Elton John, as I saw him.

And as for Sir Elton himself, it’s absolutely salutary to see an artist who has gained such confidence that he lets his work speak for itself. May we all arrive at that point, whatever we’ve done in our lives.

*NOTE: It’s perhaps unsurprising that I never saw a performance of nor heard a note of Elton John’s Aida. I like the man well enough, but I can’t condone the sort of hubris that says, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! We’ll do a new adaptation of Aida — and we’ll start by throwing out Verdi’s music!”

**There was no opening act per se, but those cellists, Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, began the evening with three duets of pop/rock standards. This might have interested me more had they been playing conventional instruments, but these were electric, not acoustic cellos: bare skeletons with a few strings attached to an amp. That they were able to elicit such a hard drive from these devices seemed less than remarkable — but if they can perform similar feats with the real thing, I’ll pay closer attention.

Šulić and Hauser (the scruffy one, seen on the screen) have their own act, which they call 2Cellos.
UPDATE: Yes, these are the guys who played backup in Santana’s rendition of “Smooth criminal” in Glee’s Michael Jackson episode.


Suep said...

You don't know any of his lyrics by heart? We have to talk. sk

Suep said...

Regarding the subject of whether EJ is rock'n'roll or pop, dId you ever see the film Almost Famous? sk

William V. Madison said...

Dear Suep --

I honestly don't think I can recite the lyrics to an entire verse or chorus of any song Sir Elton ever wrote. And I've never owned any of his albums, which may explain a lot of my ignorance.

I did see Almost Famous, though.