April 6, 2011 – When a legend like Elton John takes the stage, it can take a while for the reality of their presence to set in. Such was the case when the legendary singer/songwriter took the stage at a sold-out Bismarck Civic Center last night. Sure, there were plenty of cheers when Elton made his way out for the first song. But somewhere between his 14th and 15th megahit of the night, the crowd seemed to realize they were in fact gathered around Elton John’s piano, and you could hear it in the air.
Bismarck, North Dakota doesn’t get many concerts. So when a performer like Elton John swings into town promising three hours of his greatest hits, you can expect the people to come out in droves. And did they ever come out – over 9,000 of them – creating the highest grossing concert in the Civic Center’s long history. Some arrived in Elton-inspired eyewear, others even threw on a sparkling coat in honor of the singer. Regardless of the costumes, however, most everyone in the arena was more than ready to see the singer finally take the stage.
The haunting keyboards of “Funeral for a Friend” signaled Elton’s grand entrance as he waved to fans before locating the piano bench he would be seated at for the next three hours (let’s hope it’s a comfortable one for his sake). He began with calm melodies, but didn’t take long to crash into a frenzy of a jam as guitarist Davey Johnstone and bassist Bob Birch took turns joining him at the keys for what could only be termed “maximum rock out”.
Touring the world playing sold out shows for over 40 years, Elton John has surely exhausted the various methods of changing his set around. But for the 2011 “Greatest Hits Live” Tour, the show has been split into three distinct but unannounced sections. First is a long series of hits, followed by songs from his new release with Leon Russell, “The Union”, ending with a yet another string of classics as a finale. With songs new and old and in between, all bases were covered in a catalog that seems to have no end.
Generous doses of piano wizardry were the main order of business in the first third of the performance as hits like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Tiny Dancer” were extended well past their normal running time to accommodate additional play with the keys. At times it seemed as if even Elton himself had no idea where his solo was going, but he didn’t care, and the crowd didn’t either. By the time a ten minute version of “Rocket Man” came to a close, one had nearly forgotten which song was being played.
Artists can sometimes lose fans’ attention when indulging in new material, and that might have been the case at this concert if not for upbeat tracks like “Hey Ahab”. The song not only brought fans to their feet, but also brought out some of the night’s most outrageous dance moves from backup singer Tata Vega. Although there were four backup singers in the band, it was Vega who stole the show with her unstoppable energy throughout.
Even the slow-paced new tracks seemed to find appreciation. If crowd noise is any indication, “The Union” might just be Elton’s best album in many years.
The concert had its predictables and its unpredictables. Predictable was the sea of lighters that emerged during what is arguably his most popular ballad, “Candle in the Wind”. Unpredictable was Elton John climbing atop his piano and engaging the crowd during “Bennie and the Jets”. It was about the time the singer was standing on his piano bench when it really began to set in that “this is happening”.
Nonstop touring over a lifetime takes its toll on a voice. Elton, however, takes his wear in stride and sings with a passion that’s as fiery as ever. He knows when he’s going for the big notes, and handles them with remarkable strength. Other memorable sounds of the night included drummer Nigel Olsson, who was impossible not to notice as he pounded with force and perfection. Exchanging knowing smiles when a big musical break was on its way, watching Olsson interact with original guitarist Johnstone and bassist Birch was a real treat.
There’s a been a lot of hype about Elton John over the years, but it’s a concert like this that proves why he’s landed a spot as one of the greatest entertainers of his century. He reinvents the hits on stage without altering the formula that made him famous. You get the sense that Elton John lives and breathes music in the way he plays his show with contagious pride; he has a way of making each song personal for the fans gathered to hear them. And that’s a gift truly reserved for the greatest of entertainers.