SUNDAY MAGAZINE

One piano only

Sir Elton John ... hasn't faded away.

Sir Elton John ... hasn't faded away.  

As the evening in Bangalore came to an end, MUKUND PADMANABHAN couldn't help feeling the really remarkable thing about Elton John is that he is still doing what he knows best ... making music.

IT could well have been a chartered flight. Aboard the aircraft bound from Chennai to Bangalore, I am astonished by the number of people I know bound for the Elton John concert. "Are you coming for this too?" they ask.

Of course, I am. But which Elton John concert am I going to? The truth is I don't really know. Am I going to listen to the flamboyant rock 'n roller of the 1970s who belted sharp and clever tunes such as "Honky Cat" and "Your Song" and who made a place for the piano in a medium dominated by guitars? Is this going to be about the man who, in the mid and late 1980s, dipped more and more into fruity and forgettable pop (and sometimes into sheer schlock) to notch up hit single after hit single including such mawkish pap as "Sacrifice" and that cloying lament about love in the time of Cold War, "Nikita". Or am I there to witness the more recent avatars of this 56-year old, as the official mourner of Princess Diana and the score in lucrative Disney animations, both of which have furthered his musical popularity even as they have possibly diminished his musical reputation?

On arriving at Bangalore's Palace Grounds, I discover the question was not merely which Elton John rock concert I was going to. Rather, whether I am going to a rock concert at all. A `VIP enclosure' which ringed the stage seemed erected partly to act like a cordon sanitaire and partly to satisfy the fetish for social exclusivity. You couldn't buy your way into this neck of the woods. Entry was available only through acquisition of unadvertised tickets sold or given away to select customers.

But my perplexity went well beyond the lack of easy egalitarianism. Plastic chairs were strung out in neat lines all over the ground. Chairs at an open air rock concert?! Could they really be serious?! Yes they were. But the reason for stripping the event of the informality and unceremoniousness of a regulation rock concert became quickly evident.

Sir Elton is to perform without his band. The only thing in musical tow is his custom-built piano. Perhaps, I should have known this, but there were a whole load of others extremely disappointed he didn't have the full back up. It's not hard to see why the confusion arose. A concert billed "One Night Only" is reflexively associated with his recent greatest hits collection of the same name. This being a live recording of a gig with a nine member band at New York's Madison Avenue. Shouldn't "solo" have been prominently featured in advertisements of the Bangalore show? Wouldn't it have been more transparently billed as "One Piano Only"?

Switching from a "rock concert" to a "concert hall" frame of mind is not easy. But it is unavoidable and the passage is eased by an austere, almost ascetic, rendition of "Your Song" which radiates a spartan beauty. From here on, the music takes on a diverse character, reflecting a career which has spanned a little more than three decades, during which Elton John has reinvented himself more than once. He dips (though not evenly) into the music of each period, has a little bit of everything for everybody.

But it's going to be a quiet kind of evening, better suited, one cannot help thinking, to the stillness of an indoor auditorium rather than the distractions of scraping chairs, shuffling feet and vendors of snacks. In his suit of silver-lined crystal blue, the florid rock star — whose on-stage costumes have variously included ostrich feathers, Donald Duck costumes and oversized spectacles that spell his name in lights — is soberly attired by his own standards.

The best part of the show comes some half a dozen songs into the programme when, after getting through with "Daniel", that plainitive cry about brotherly demise, he does a wonderful version of "Honky Cat" — the jerky syncopated jazz-based rhythm carried through in a brilliant lengthy coda that is absent in the original. A spirited version of "Rocket Man" follows and is met by well-deserved applause, but it is clear by now that, in this mix of ballad and rock n' roll, some tunes are better adapted for solo than others. (Is this why he does not play what is possibly his best known song, the heavily orchestrated "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"?).

"Bennie And The Jets", with its percussion-like beat, holds up well and "Crocodile Rock" has the audience singing along. But there are many pieces, notably "I'm Still Standing", where one couldn't help feeling that the piano simply couldn't fill in for the other instruments. On a second encore, the show ends sentimentally with the "Circle Of Life" track from "The Lion King".

A quick Elton John in Bangalore audit? Exactly as one might expect — very good when he is playing his early music, overly soppy and sentimental when he is doing much of what came later. But as the evening is over, you cannot help feeling that the really remarkable thing is that he is still making music (and popular music at that) more than three decades after "Your Song" crept up the record charts in 1970. It's been a period during which he's had a throat operation performed, a pacemaker installed, his hair transplanted, his sexuality redefined and periodic trouble with drugs, booze and bulimia. Sir Elton's real triumph is that, to echo one of his own songs, he's still standing ... while most others have simply faded away.

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