The Rocket Man’s Richmond Return
Elton John performed in Richmond on Saturday night. Promotional photo.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw or heard Elton John. I was seven years old and home sick from school. I was watching the Muppet Show, with special guest, Elton John. The red curtain opened and behind it laid a Technicolor bayou with a white piano occupied by a clump of feathers and surrounded by the members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. From the feathers emerged a very young and sparkly Elton John who sang “Crocodile Rock,” backed up by a choir of crocodiles. The song made me dance and sing for weeks until my poor, tortured parents presented me with a copy of Elton John’s Greatest Hits (so I’d have more material.)
Fast forward to March 17, 2012. I’m sitting in a mixed crowd. Above me and to my left and right are the original fans (all of them sporting their “concert attire” they’ve had in their closets since early on). To my immediate left is a older gentleman who immediately introduces himself. He’s alone here as well tonight, like me; I’ve found my concert buddy. In front of us is a gaggle of frat boys who make my new friend and me nervous as they loudly (and drunkenly) talk about their St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
The lights go down and the surprise of the evening takes place within seconds. 2CELLOS take the stage as an opening act. We look at each other with grins; Sir Elton has graciously provided us with eye candy and what’s more, very talented eye candy.
Hailing from Croatia, Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, having gained notoriety for their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” on YouTube, were personally invited by Elton John to join his tour, both as an opening act and as a part of his supporting band. Utilizing only their minimalist electric cellos, the duo create a sound bigger than one expects from two instruments; the audience is blown away with covers of “With or Without You,” “Shook Me All Night Long,” and “Smooth Criminal.” Their closing number of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is every bit rock and roll as any electric guitar supported grunge rock band—head banging included. Their energy is contagious; throughout the entire show they seem barely able to contain themselves as they join in the shredding with lead guitarist Davy Johnstone. To be honest, they impressed me enough to make me go home and by their album on iTunes that night—and coming from me, that’s saying something.
After 2CELLOS performs the audience is met with darkness, and we all go wild with anticipation. Out comes the band; the first chords of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” begin, and the man of the hour takes the stage. And now comes the only criticism I have of the whole show: Whoever styled him needs to be manhandled. Yes, yes, I am aware that his wardrobe is flamboyant, but his St. Patty’s Day finest leads me to believe someone’s nana in Miami is short one rhinestoned housecoat. He can do a lot better. But overlooking the jacket, the man is on point as he meanders through his numerous hits, acknowledging that indeed, it has been some years since the songs were originally debuted.
During the second song, “Bennie and the Jets” the frat boys in front finally make their move and explode in a chorus of shrill screams and a display of choreography unexpected from people so very drunk. And it’s contagious. Imagine my surprise as I am dipped by one of these fine gentlemen during the song, “Levon.” Even my friend bumped butts with a few of the frat boys during “Philadelphia Freedom.” It becomes clear that this isn’t just a concert, it’s a crowd experience, and we’re all experiencing it with such joy and enthusiasm! Seat assignments have no meaning as we all dance together and emphatically sing our favorite parts, gesturing dramatically to one another.
Dancing is a theme for the evening. If Elton John is the main attraction, he is quickly followed by the pair of twenty-something year old brothers who are boogying down in the front row. Now when I say boogying, I mean they are fully rehearsed and busting moves at the highest energy levels possible. Kicking, swinging, dipping, jumping, flipping, flailing, and nearly taking out the rest of the front row and security to boot; they not only entertain the audience, but Elton John and his entire band as well.
At first I think someone (namely Elton,) is going to kick their dancing behinds out for upstaging, and at one point they disappear, only to be brought on stage(!!!) to dance in front of the sold out crowd. They make the most of it, performing gymnastics and a choreographed routine. I am to understand perhaps they won some sort of contest, with dancing on stage being the prize. And with moves like those, it’s not hard to imagine why they’d win. The crowd adores them and is immensely jealous of them at the same time.
There’s not much one can say about Elton John that hasn’t been said. He is an icon. He’s a seasoned performer who knows how to work a crowd and a musician whose talent can’t be expounded upon enough. He’s wonderful. He quiets the high energy crowd by playing unexpected songs like “Holiday Inn,” “I’m Gonna Be a Teenage Idol,” and “Gone to Shiloh.” Of course he also pumps us up and plays the songs we know and love, and plays them way they ought to be heard. “Tiny Dancer” sends us all to our own private places in our minds—everyone has a different connection to that song. There is many a misty eye as the iconic melody plays.
“Rocket Man” encourages men to start doing strange dances and bark out abruptly sung lines (thank you William Shatner). “Sorry” subdues the crowd briefly before bringing down the house with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” “I’m Still Standing” causes the last non-dancing holdouts to join in. “Bitch” encourages triumphant pumping of fists in the air (most especially from those frat boys!) And then came “Crocodile Rock.”
As an encore he plays the song he says made all of this possible, “Your Song.” And everyone around me is transported as they sing along. They are no longer standing in the Richmond Coliseum at an Elton John concert. They have been taken to a memory of romance and happiness; it’s written all over their faces.
For three hours we had the pleasure of witnessing a master of his craft doing what he does best: Inspire joy through his art. His music does this funny thing to people. Everyone has a memory attached to his songs. Good or bad, sad or happy, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Your Song,” and even “Honky Cat” mean something to the person who hears it.
I can’t say that about every artist I listen to, that they take me somewhere else. But Elton John? When he started to play “Crocodile Rock” I was seven years old all over again, standing in my living room in my Care Bear pajamas, grinning at the TV as a man in rhinestones led a trio of crocodiles in a chorus of “Laaaaa, la, la, la, la, laaaaa!”
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