Sunday, March 1, 2020

Elton John in best voice ever at Coffs Harbour Stadium

Elton John 
Farewell Yellow Brick Road - final world tour
Coffs Harbour International Stadium
February 26, 2020

by Tony Magee

Let me start by disclosing that I am a fan and have been since a teenager, but I attempt to write this review impartially and without any hint of sycophancy.

Image by Ben Gibson Photography

The Coffs experience was meticulously organised. I think the city was overwhelmed at the prospect of hosting someone of the magnitude of Sir Elton John. They pulled out all the stops. Continuous bus shuttle services from multiple locations to and from the venue. The accomodation facilities all had bus stop maps waiting for guests as they checked in.

On arrival at the venue, all gates were open with crowd control directors moving people through in a friendly and efficient manner - no delays or queues. Lots of security present to make people feel safe and comfortable. The seating designations and areas were all well signed. Everything was smooth as silk. Thank you Coffs Harbour!

Canberra’s own Tate Sheridan opened the show, himself on keyboards and vocals with bass and drums. A really nice set of his original songs. His piano style certainly reflects some of Elton’s style, however I also heard influences from Dave Grusin and Bruce Hornsby in his playing. His voice is deep and powerful and with good diction and pitch.

Highlights of his set were “Life was Lonely” - a heavy rock piece, “Aura” - a gospel style piece dedicated to Aretha Franklin, “I’m just a Melody Man”, which is a kind of homage to all the up and coming new artists who are trying their best to “make it” - Tate is one of those. And his final song and one of his earliest compositions, “Fade to Black”, a moving ballad.

Sheridan received appreciative applause from the audience.

After a short break and a stage reset, Elton’s band appeared to great applause - right on time at 7.15pm precisely - and then out he came, dressed in white tails, somewhat reminiscent of Liberace.

The first massive piano chord - thump - was an F major 7, filled out to the max. Then another. Yes, it was obvious what the opening number would be. A change in to G major and we were off with “Benny and the Jets”. A great performance and a great opening.

Sir Elton John performs his opening number, "Benny and the Jets"
at Coffs Harbour International Stadium, Feb 26, 2020. Photo: Tony Magee

The band comprised some of his most dedicated, talented and long time members. Nigel Olsson on drums, Davey Johnstone on guitar and Ray Cooper on percussion. They were joined by Matt Bissonette on bass, Kim Bullard on synth, who provided the brass, strings and early 70’s and 80’s classic keyboard sounds and a second percussionist, John Mahon.

All of them also provided excellent backing vocals with superb harmonies. There were no “extra” backup singers in this show, as there have been in previous Elton shows. The actual band, plus Elton did all the singing.

Elton varied the program in a way I haven’t heard for years. As well as the big hits which are “must haves”, he delved back in time to some of his earliest albums from 1969 to 1971 - Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed Connection and the “Elton John” album itself, re-learning, 51 years later, such songs as “Red Indian Sunset” and “Levon”. 

“Levon” was placed in the middle of the show and after the initial sung verse, morphed into a lengthy instrumental showcase of dazzling piano work from Elton and a searing, sparkling guitar solo from Davey Johnstone using his exquisite Austrian Rhinestone be-jewelled Gibson, one of four different guitars he showcased during the show. Ray Cooper also went crazy with an extended percussion solo.

I recalled seeing just the two of them together in 1978 at Festival Hall in Melbourne, something Elton reminded the audience about later in the show as well. My memory had not failed me!

A change of pace saw Elton deliver a moving and melancholy version of "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word", from his Blue Moves album of 1976.

In discussing 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, one of my favourites, he delivered what he now considers the high point of that record, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", which he and the band poured their hearts and souls into. This is surely one of Bernie Taupin's best lyrics and one of Elton's best musical settings.

Then the band discretely left the stage, leaving Elton to sing us “Candle in the Wind” alone. Beautifully done, although incredulously, he forgot the words momentarily and mumbled something to cover up. The look on his face was one of “I can’t believe I just did that!”. If he was going to mess something up, of all the songs it had to be - that one? Oh well. Larry Sitsky once said to me “thank goodness for wrong notes during live performances - we’re human beings, not robots”.

“Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding” brought the band back on stage for a powerhouse performance of this massive two song coupling, which is the opening track on his 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It was great, but slightly spoiled for me and my colleagues Alex and Jack, by the tom-toms and kick drum being ridiculously overpowering in the sound mix.

“Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me” and “The Bitch is Back” followed, brilliantly performed, with Davey Johnstone opting for his yellow Gibson Flying V guitar. He finished the show using his black Les Paul Gibson. A red Fender Stratocaster also made an appearance.

Elton’s own Yamaha concert grand CFIIIS sounded wonderful, although the bass section was heavily modified into an electronic, almost metallic sound. The tenor and treble regions were authentic “real piano” sound. His playing has not diminished with time. Flexible technique, lots of blues licks - a favourite of his - and the ability to sing without looking at the keys much at all. His fingers know the way around all those chords, to all those songs, in an almost automated fashion.

By contrast though, Elton also has the look of a performer concentrating very hard on making sure that he does everything as well as he possibly can. As the years pass by, I guess this becomes harder. But he clearly loves the challenge.

Elton was in his best voice ever. Incredible to think that it failed him in Auckland just two weeks earlier. Elton’s “mature” voice, as he calls it, came after an operation for vocal chord nodules during his 1986 tour of Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

After the surgery, his top tenor range was gone, but after a couple of weeks he decided he liked his new rich sounding lower tenor and baritone range, which he still has today.

The other band members take care of the once famous Elton “high range” and together, as I mentioned before, the joint vocal harmonies came across magnificently.

In the same way that Andy Williams saved “Moon River” for his second encore, in his later years of performing, Elton teased us all by leaving “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for his finale, which was preceded by the band all joining him at the front of the stage, taking their well deserved bows to a standing ovation and thunderous applause and cheers from the 20,000 or so audience. 

Then they departed. There was this uncomfortable gap with no-one on stage for a few minutes. Are they coming back? Do we get an encore?

Oh yes - Elton returned having changed into a lime green suit, with the band, and presented their finale.

In all, he and the band were on stage performing for just under three hours. That’s quite a show!

At 72, Elton John is just half way through this “final world tour”. The concert at Coffs Harbour was his 173rd of the tour, over the last 18 months. He has about the same number to go. The man has incredible stamina and energy. 

I said to my friend towards the end of the show, “Alex, I’m twelve years younger than Elton. There’s no way I have the stamina to do what he just did.” Alex replied, “Magoo, if you were getting paid a million dollars a show, I think you’d suddenly find the stamina and energy.” Hmmm - maybe.

Elton concluded by thanking Australia from the bottom of his heart for being there with him and supporting him over the last 52 years. Australia, he said, is the country he has toured more than any other in the world. He loves our country and he loves us. And I believe he really meant it.