Hot on the heels of his best album in five years, Elton John has reassembled his best band from the early '70s and taken to the road he once seemed to own. Twelve years after capturing the hearts and minds of rock fans with sophisticated craftsmanship and good-natured showmanship that personified '70s pop, John finds himself on the upswing in a decidedly cyclical career.
For 10,000 fans at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, last night's concert was a recitation of familiar virtues--John's warm, flexible vocals; his flamboyant and infectious piano playing with its mix of rock, boogie-woogie, blues, gospel and classical; a barrelful of catchy melodic hooks surrounding impassioned and intelligent lyrics, mostly courtesy of Bernie Taupin.
John did little that was new, outside of several songs from his most recent album, but he did it all with renewed fervor and dedication, with the panache that has circumscribed his best work over the years. In his last local appearance three years ago, John had played solo (mostly) and there were times last night when that intimacy would have been welcome. But the band that first came together 10 years ago and split up in 1975--guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson--was superb. One would have thought they had never been apart. Olsson never intruded on John's heavily percussive block chording or his delicate arpeggios, instead keeping strict and subtle time. Johnstone's guitar work was always well thought out, adding layers of color and occasionally cutting through with stinging commentary.
John, in fine voice all night, paid homage to the various stages of a career that has brought forth 23 albums in 13 years. He convincingly performed not only the songs everyone expected--rambunctious versions of "Bennie and the Jets," "The Bitch Is Back," "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," the elegiac "Your Song," a splendid "Rocket Man" and a haunting "Daniel"--but lesser-known songs as well. The night's most emotional ovation followed John's eloquent tribute to John Lennon, "Empty Garden," done a bit harder and faster than on record but still a gem.
At the show's start, when he stepped out of some artificial fog wearing a glitzy jewel-studded matador's outfit, John was letting everyone know that he rejected the artistic and commercial eclipse predicted over the last few years when his creativity seemed to recede as fast as his hairline. His two-hour plus performance was athletically energetic, sentimental when it needed to be and thoroughly engaging. He returns to the Pavilion tonight, proving again as he sang in "Your Song," "My gift is my song. . . . It's the best I can do."