Introduced as “the greatest night of karaoke you will have ever seen” by “Will & Grace’s” Eric McCormack, this tribute to Elton John in conjunction with the Intl. Music Products Assn.’s winter trade show was a long time in the making, and it clearly showed. During a nearly seamless three-hour lovefest, a broad spectrum of performers tried on some extremely well-chosen (and, naturally, well-written) tunes as their own for the evening — only to be outdone by the hitmaker himself at the end.
Relatively straightforward renditions of “Levon” from Nikka Costa and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from Rufus Wainwright started things off, but as the lineup progressed, each pairing of singer-to-song grew more intriguing:
- Bruce Hornsby stretched out both vocally and instrumentally on “Burn Down the Mission.”
- Jewel added ever more sweetness (as if that were possible — or necessary) to an acoustic “Your Song.”
- Brian McKnight provided a soulful “Rocket Man” reading.
- Norah Jones and her band graced “Tiny Dancer” with a delicate, loping swing.
- Randy Newman sat at the keys and spat out the weird and wonderful lyrics of “Bennie and the Jets.”
- Brian Wilson inhabited — as best he can — the psychodramatic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (with his usual backing vocal support). If anyone deserves to sing the line, “Thank God my music’s still alive,” it’s him.
Most unexpected turn of the night came from McCormack (a lifelong unabashed John fan, it turns out), who delivered an astonishingly able take on the show’s most obscure track — the title cut to 1975’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first album ever to enter the American pop charts at No. 1.
McCormack also acquitted himself well while vamping during production breaks, snapping off quips about celebrities unable to appear to perform John-Taupin classics, such as Willie Nelson doing “Grow Some Funk of Your Own” or Winona Ryder making her musical debut with “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (the latter of which, all joking aside, would be given a heartbreaking turn by legend Ray Charles).
Night’s lone off-note found Vanessa Carlton, admittedly with the least stage experience, offering up a struggling “Star Search”-like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Michael McDonald, a previous lifetime achievement honoree, brought out a dozen-plus-member choir to help with the rousing “Take Me to the Pilot.”
Nearly all of those gathered to honor Elton benefited from the expert backing of his current touring band, which includes such longtime compatriots as drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.
But none would, of course, ultimately top the man of the marquee, who finally entered to the haunting strains of the epic “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” For the last hour, from the lovely New York ode “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and ballad “Sacrifice” (with John Mayer) to rockers “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” Elton and band showed exactly why he has influenced such a diverse range of artists, young and old, with his songs over the past 30-odd years and remains an immensely popular recording and performing artist.
Proceeds of the concert will benefit such music education charities as the American Music Conference, the Intl. Foundation for Music Research and the Museum of Making Music.
2003 NAMM Concert Honoring Sir Elton John
Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim; 14,000 seats; $300 top
Presented by Yamaha. Reviewed Jan. 17, 2003.
Band: Davey Johnstone, Nigel Olsson, Guy Babylon, Robert Birch, John Mahon, Fred Mandel. Singers: Ray Charles, Brian Wilson, Norah Jones, Randy Newman, Diana Krall, Michael McDonald, Jewel, Take 6, Bruce Hornsby, Brian McKnight, Nikka Costa, Rufus Wainwright, Vanessa Carlton, John Mayer.
Host: Eric McCormack.