Whatever you think of Elton John, you can’t deny his influence. You can debate which of his songs advanced which schools of pop — pre ’77 most would argue. But his body of work is so large and strong that one of his challenges is to design a show that captures his range of contributions.
At least half of the songs at Sunday night’s Saratoga Performing Arts Center show were pre-1977, and the entire show was stuffed tight with hits, similar to most of his recent shows. This was refreshing compared to other older tours that came through SPAC recently, such as Journey, Stevie Nicks and even Godsmack, all designed to promote their latest record. He did no such thing, other than to play a few from his latest with Leon Russell.
John moved quickly through most of his set, playing them just like we know them: Good for the audience, but I don’t know how he can sing the songs untouched after all these years (he told us he’s been playing the area for 40 years). Any changes to the song came as an addendum, offering some piano work afterwards, as he did in “Rocket Man,” and an extended solo inside “Madman Across the Water.”
He’s essentially a blues piano player, and occasionally hops it up into a rock-a-billy feel, as in the opener “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “I’m Still Standing.”
He said little between songs, and spent the night at the piano singing hit after hit. At 60-plus, he seemed full of energy, but moved suspiciously quickly through many of his amazing tunes, including “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” and “I Guess that’s Why they Call it the Blues.”
Short on greatness
The great “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” did not come close to its proper greatness, neither rising nor falling at any point. But he got underneath “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to genuinely lift the band and crowd for the first time. It would have been nice to see him do this a few more times through the show.
The tonkish “Honky Cat” hopped nicely, a few dancers bopping inside the sold-out pavilion. He spotlighted his veteran guitarist Davey Johnstone at this point, a nice moment of recognition.
John moved into the latter part of the show with classics like the beautiful “Daniel,” a pretty cool “Bennie and the Jets,” “The Bitch Is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” and “Your Song,” his first hit some 40 years ago.
John’s best moments were without the band, when he shrunk the sound — and the venue — down to his voice and piano, as he did with “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” His voice often strained under the weight of the band; alone, without competing for space, he relaxed and didn’t rush. It seemed the quieter he got, the more exciting the music. Unfortunately, there was not much of that. Instead, they spent more effort over-selling the rock tunes.
John has fame beyond comprehension. It’s hard to think of a name more widely known. His sales numbers are astounding — 250 million according to his website. If there’s a music-related award, he has it. His numbers continue to grow largely, partly due to an aggressive schedule — he starts a 16-day run in Las Vegas at the end of this month. Sunday night’s show again demonstrated his secure spot in the modern pop canon.