Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Elton at Mohegan Sun Arena

"Pinch me," said a woman in her 60s to her friend as they waited with hundreds of other concertgoers to enter the Mohegan Sun Arena Friday night. "I can't believe I'm actually going to see him live in concert. This was on my 'to do' list before I die!"

The "him" to whom she referred was none other than music legend Elton John, who was playing his first of two back-to-back sold-out shows in the casino's arena.

At promptly 8:15 p.m., the lights dimmed, fog rose from dry ice machines strategically placed around the stage, and the familiar synthesized opening strains of the timeless "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" filled the packed arena. A minute or so later, as thunderous applause erupted, John entered stage right, gave a smile and wave to the crowd, and gingerly made his way to the piano bench to kick off what would be nearly three hours of musical entertainment at its finest.

After the 10-minute classic opener, John kicked things into gear with his hit song "The Bitch is Back," which brought most of the crowd to its feet. Oddly enough, there were pockets of fans in the audience who stayed in their seats during this and other rocking numbers, with some even urging those up and dancing to sit down ("That's the challenge with playing a casino," explained one of the band members after the show.) Apparently, some of the "high rollers" are given complimentary tickets to shows at the arena and may not be big fans of the performers they're seeing.

Party poopers aside, John slowed things down a bit for the next few songs, which included "Madman Across the Water," "Tiny Dancer," and "Levon," which, despite its ballad-like beginning, turned into a rocked-out sing-along and showcased the talents of John's five-piece back-up band, which includes longtime John cohorts Davey Johnstone - often referred to by music industry insiders as one of the best guitarists ever - and Nigel Olsson, the gifted drummer whose energy and enthusiasm are infectious. "I Believe in Love," off the "Made in England" album, came next, followed by a jazz- and rock-infused piano progression into "Take Me to the Pilot" and the classic "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," on which John's vocals were as sweet and inspiring as ever - even if he did need a little bit of help from his bandmates when hitting the high notes.

The popular ballad "Daniel" was followed by an elongated version of "Rocket Man," the funky "Honky Cat," and a slew of slow songs, including "Sacrifice," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," and the beautiful tribute to Marilyn Monroe - later reworked as an homage to the late Princess Diana - "Candle in the Wind."

John, who at 61 is still an amazing talent - and an energetic one, to boot - then switched gears by launching into a string of rocking hits that included "Benny and the Jets," "Sad Songs," "Philadelphia Freedom," "I'm Still Standing," "Crocodile Rock" - which turned into a karaoke-like sing-along with the crowd joining in on the "la, la, la, la, la, las" - and the first set's closer, the anthem-like "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," which saw John - wearing a baggy suit and tails adorned with sequined musical notes, an owl, and a caricature of himself as a wizard - atop the piano with his arms raised in a victory cheer.

A steady standing ovation brought John out for two songs that would round out his 24-song playlist: "Pinball Wizard," and the timeless "Your Song," which he dedicated to the audience and to all of the fans in America who have supported him so generously through the years.

There's no question that John delivered a hit-filled set, but as a longtime fan, I would have preferred to hear some of the lesser-known songs that don't often - if ever - make their way to the stage (how about "In Neon," "Grimsby," "One Horse Town," "Amoreena," "Writing," anything from the "Friends" soundtrack or his first album, "Empty Sky").

John was less chatty than usual between songs, but was clearly humbled by the repeated standing ovations, and thanked the fans numerous times during his show. Near the end of the concert, he walked the length of the stage signing autographs for the diehard fans who had made their way to the front of the arena.

John's ivory-tickling was fluid but not tricky as he settled into his show with the combination "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," his voice prodding its lyrics intently as the tune built to a crescendo accompanied by a seizure-inducing LED light display above the stage.

That was the limit of the show's visual fireworks, but John soon threw out pyrotechnics from his piano, from the hammering he gave the keys in "The Bitch is Back" to the expansive surge with which he decorated the deliberate thump of "Madman Across the Water."

And while seeing John live, or getting his autograph, may not have been on everyone's bucket list, fans streaming out of the arena after Friday night's concert - many of whom were pumped up and singing or humming songs from the performance - most certainly had a grand time.

Elton John's performance Friday night included the following songs:

"Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,"
"The Bitch is Back,"
"Madman Across the Water,"
"Tiny Dancer,"
"Take me to the Pilot,"
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,"
"Rocket Man,"
"Honky Cat,"
"Don't Let the Sun go Down on Me,"
"All the Young Girls Love Alice,"
"I Guess That's why They Call it the Blues,"
"Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,"
"Candle in the Wind,"
"Bennie and the Jets,"
"Sad Songs (Say so Much),"
"Philadelphia Freedom,"
"I'm Still Standing,"
"Crocodile Rock,"
"Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting),"

"Pinball Wizard,"
"Your Song."

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