The piano of Elton John has been returned to the forefront of the British singer’s nearly three-hour show, refreshing and rejuvenating the performer and his songs in an absolutely divine manner. John is the good side of nostalgia — in his hands, it’s never a gratuitous marketing ploy — and it’s great to see that pianistic showman element return 25 years after his dramatic debut at the Troubadour nightclub. John’s strongest piano excursion came on a dramatically slowed down “Take Me to the Pilot” as he vamped a lengthy intro that boiled over in gospel and R&B touches; midsong, the piano became a jungle gym for John as he explored his baby grand while his right hand kept working on a jumpy motif. Closer was John rising from under the keyboard and playing behind his head — a nice agile move for a man of 48.
Other tunes got similar, though not as dramatic, workouts. “I Don’t Want to Go On With You Like That,” the third song performed, gave a hint of things to come as the supportive band gave John some room to ramble in what is essentially a rhythmically locked-in dance number. “Honky Cat” was treated to a Southern boogie solo; “Benny and the Jets” was taken for a reworking that included a barrel-house piano seg.
The key element, as it is at the best John shows, was fun. Sixteen of the 20 tunes performed pre-encores were, if not smashes, tremendously familiar. And the only number plucked from true obscurity, the country-tinged “Dixie Lili” from 1974’s “Caribou,” had a dated feel. The rest were a timeline in song of a baby boomer’s life, from 1970’s “Pilot” and “Come Down in Time” to the current “House” and “Made in England.”
John, who wore a black-and-white diamond-checked suit, paced the show expertly by keeping the tempo up and getting in and out of the ballads quickly. George Michael dropped in to take over “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and the ovation he received during and after the song suggested his legal squabbles hardly have cut into his fan base. On top of that, he sounded great.
Band benefits from its long relationship with the star as, for this tour, it’s asked to balance a supporting role with sounding like the records.
Drummer Charlie Morgan, for example, ensures steadiness, while percussionist Ray Cooper adds the wild side. Keyboardist Guy Babylon was dropping in so many synthesized sounds (a horn section blast, a layer of violins) that it brought John’s dead-on pitch into question, but the singer faltered slightly as the evening wore on, easing any doubts. Lightshow was generally subtle yet effective.