After a massive queue at the Box Office and a ticket mix up which was kindly sorted out by the lovely Jill, I finally make it into the arena to hear some of the support act, 2Cellos. This isn’t a clever name; the band consists of two cellists, from Zagreb, who play arrangements of popular songs on electric cellos. They rose to fame via a Youtube clip of them playing Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal, and this is the song I walk into hear, whilst finding my seat I am distracted by their passion. Both Luka and Stjepan are classically trained musicians and their talent is obvious through their unique take on such a well-known song, ensuring that the track doesn’t lose any of its depth by interweaving melody and harmony cleverly between the two. The set proceeds with U2’s With or Without You and more interestingly Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, which sees the cellists experiment with fuzz pedals and distortion to encapsulate the raucous disposition of the original. Their final track of the set is AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, which sees the duo joined by a drummer and Stjepan Hauser embrace the spirit of Angus by gesturing the infamous horns. They are a superb support act for Elton John, yet I am not sure how much mileage there is in two cellists playing cover versions, however both of the musicians have said that they have no plans to give up classical music and as they are both excellent cellists I am sure they will never be short of work.
As Highway to Hell draws to close more musicians enter the stage and join the collective which subtly begins to segue into Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting that sees a very sparkly Elton John enter, take his seat at the piano and launch headlong into one his heaviest and well-loved songs. With a career spanning over forty years, John has reached iconic status worldwide with a number of achievements including the best-selling single of all time in both the UK and US with the tribute to Princess Diana “Candle in the Wind 1997”, and his recent appearance at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert despite respiratory problems. Straight away it is clear you are watching a consummate professional who knows what the crowd want and gives it to them. The syncopated rhythm of Bennie and Jets is the next track to be embraced by the upstanding audience, which misses some of the roughness that you get from the recording, however John is still able to reach those high notes and his band ride the extended version without skipping a shifted beat. As England are playing Sweden tonight, Elton keeps us updated with the score and seems surprised by the lack lustre support for Andy Carroll, yet responds with a witty retort demonstrating his evil sense of humour. The set proceeds with Grey Seal and Levon, a slowing down of the pace that the majority of the crowd use to take a seat and enjoy John’s talented piano playing. Unlike his Red Piano Tour, this show is missing David LaChapelle’s elaborate and provocative visuals, they are replaced by an LED backdrop that displays simple patterns relating to each song leaving the eye more focused on the musicians’ performance.
In keeping with the gentler tempo of the set, the beautiful Tiny Dancer is introduced as “a song for the ladies” and sees 2Cellos return to the stage. The addition of strings enhances the live performance of the ballad, which, on the previous tour, suffered from the string setting on a keyboard detracting from its magnificence. The show continues with hit after hit ranging from the catchy Philadelphia Freedom to the emotional homage to Marilyn Monroe, Candle in the Wind, illustrating the dynamic and expressive capabilities that Elton and his band have, sensing when a song requires extending and developing from the original. The prime example of this is Rocket Man, where the gradual progression of the song sees Elton John’s passion and vocal strength erupt during the final choruses which is heightened by a wall of bass, making it the song of the evening. The 80’s cheesy love song Sacrifice precedes the epic stadium instrumental of Funeral for a Friend which sees many of the audience engrossed in the mini symphony that leads into Love Lies Bleeding, demonstrating the diversity of John’s back catalogue and his ability to switch seamlessly between genres. As the performance draws to a close, Elton hits us with his upbeat love survival song I’m Still Standing followed by The Bitch is Back, and ending with his tribute to 60’s rock and roll, Crocodile Rock. This finale has the audience clapping the rhythm and singing the lahs as loud as possible, whilst John leads from his piano stool, leaving everyone on a high.
After a brief absence from the stage, in which he gleans the final football scores, Elton returns to sign various merchandise at the front of the stage including a pink boot and a bobblehead version of himself. Throughout the set, John consistently shows his appreciation of the fans who allow him to do the best job in the world and extends his gratitude and praise to his band, which includes longstanding member Nigel Olsson and Rose Stone from Sly and the Family Stone, demonstrating that he does not take his musical status for granted. The final track of the evening is Your Song which brings a fantastic performance to a pertinent conclusion. Again, Elton John has impressed and proven why he has stood the test of time and performed over 3000 concerts.
Review – Toni Woodward
Photos – John Mason