Elton John Headlines Staples Center But Lets the Songs Take Center Stage: Concert Review

Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP
The ultimate showman sure can rock-n-roll.

It was a relatively subdued Elton John production that pulled into Staples Center for the first of two shows Saturday night.

Sure, there was a chandelier hanging above the stage (which would be lowered, “Phantom of the Opera” style), and there was plenty of pomp (courtesy of “Funeral For A Friend,” which kicked off the two-hour, 24-song performance), but the stage was an uncluttered affair, and John, wearing a sparkly blue suit, made unassuming entrances and exits. The sartorial overstatement he was once known for was limited to the audience, where oversized eyeglasses, skyscraping platform shoes, and even a few Donald Duck outfits dotted the sold-out house.

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He is, he proudly states late in the evening, “comfortable in his own skin.” He’s still a showman, leaping up from his bench after every song, pumping his fists, pointing into the audience, blowing kisses, trying to goose up the already enthusiastic crowd. He teases them, striking the opening  chord for “Benny and the Jets,” then waiting a moment before pounding the full riff, and lounges on top of his grand piano like a film noir siren.  But it’s the songs that take center stage.

And those songs have proven themselves to be remarkably sturdy. The oldest of the tunes, the gentle “Your Song” from 1970’s “Elton John,” and the two-fisted gospel of  “Burn Down The Mission,” have an unforced immediacy and an assured sense of melody. “Hey Ahab,” from The Union, his 2010 collaboration with Leon Russell, is sharp and catchy. Even lesser known songs — the Jimmy Webb-inflected, road-weary “Holiday Inn” (from Madman Across The Water), and the Jerry Lee Lewis rocker “Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)” — charmed. The two selections from last year’s The Diving Board, however, while fine, feel more like songs seeking a context: “Oceans Away,” a tribute to the soldiers of WWI, is something you might hear as the credits roll on Downton Abbey, and “Home Again” might work if sung by the hero in the second act, but as stand-alone songs, they’re wanting.

Still, it was the big, mid-70s hits the crowd came for, and John delivered. Diving into Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, the double album that cemented John’s superstar status and celebrated its 40th anniversary last year; the show opens with the first side of the album and peppers additional favorites throughout the set. They’re relatively straightforward renditions — Rocket Man” is given a discursive, Keith Jarrett-esque intro and a bluesy first verse before landing into a familiar, if stately, rendition, while “Levon,” builds to a rousing, barrel-house coda. John tosses in extra piano flourishes — a Professor Longhair roll here, some dreamy Bill Evans runs there — and the band, especially old hand Nigel Olsen on drums and Davey Johnstone on guitar, provide crisp, sympathetic backing.

Lest anyone think John is ready to fade off into a Broadway dotage, the show’s final run of songs, “The Bitch Is Back,” “I’m Still Standing” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” are pugnaciously energetic, ending the evening on a well-earned, triumphant note.

Set List:

Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Bennie and the Jets
Candle in the Wind
Grey Seal
Tiny Dancer
Holiday Inn
Philadelphia Freedom
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
Hey Ahab
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Oceans Away
Your Song
Burn Down the Mission
All the Girls Love Alice
Home Again
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
The Bitch Is Back
I'm Still Standing
Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'n Roll)
Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting


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