The live legend of Elton John is almost as time-honored as his career itself. After he had paid untold dues to get himself taken seriously as an aspiring singer-songwriter, his talents as a charismatic on-stage entertainer became as unforgettable as his songs.
Early concerts in Elton’s history showcase the sensitive, introspective composer of his formative years, before he blossomed into the larger-than-life character of his stadium and arena persona. This audio-visual review of one of the world’s greatest entertainers takes an affectionate amble through half a century of Elton John as a peerless showman.
Troubadour, Los Angeles, August 25, 1970
The famous US live debut of a terrified but determined 23-year-old came on the summer night on which he arrived in the American consciousness. It came after he signed for that market to Uni Records and was invited to open for one of his own unsung favorites, David Ackles. But with some pulling of strings by the label, the bill was reversed, leaving Elton to headline for an audience including Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, all of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt and one of John’s true heroes, then and now, Leon Russell. Elton’s new labelmate Neil Diamond introduced him.
The effect of the dates was cumulative, as he played eight Troubadour shows in six days, and Bernie Taupin, already the would-be star’s writing partner of three years, described them as “the blue-touch paper for our career.” Elton himself recalled: “The atmosphere during those nights at the Troubadour was electric. Something inside me just took over. I knew this was my big moment and I really went for it.
“Pure rock’n’roll serendipity”
“The energy I put into my performance, kicking out my piano stool and smashing my legs down on the piano, caught everyone off guard. It was pure rock ’n’ roll serendipity. Even before the reviews came in, we knew that something special had happened.”
And come in they did, led by Robert Hilburn’s storied Los Angeles Times notice that described him, among other superlatives, as “a multidirectional talent of the highest order. His music is so staggeringly original that it is obvious he is not merely operating within a given musical field (such as country or blues or rock) but, like Randy Newman and Laura Nyro among others, creating his own field.”
Royal Festival Hall, London, February 5, 1972
John was still touring the Madman Across The Water album, released only three months earlier and still in the US top 20, when they introduced his upcoming fifth LP, Honky Château. The setting, perhaps Elton’s most prestigious to date, was London’s august Royal Festival Hall.
The show opened with the rendition of the still-unreleased “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)” that you see here, but also included existing staples such as “Border Song,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” Indeed, he debuted the new album in full that night, a statement of intent that he would repeat by playing the whole of the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album at Wembley Stadium in 1975.
Stadium & Arena Extravaganzas
Madison Square Garden, New York, November 28, 1974
A show that still ranks highly among Elton’s own wealth of cherished memories. He had first played at Madison Square Garden the year before, but this first of a two-night run was the celebrated occasion on which he persuaded his friend John Lennon to join the band on stage. The Beatle was, nervously, keeping a promise he made at the time of the pair’s collaboration on “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” when Lennon vowed to appear live with Elton if the song made No.1 in the US.
No one could dream that this would be Lennon’s last-ever live appearance. But the three-song cameo that included this early Beatles rocker, first sung by “an old, estranged fiancé of mine called Paul,” was an incredible feature in a momentous 21-song show, rapturously received by 20,000 people.
Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, October 25, 1975
As the engagements got bigger, so Elton’s performances and costumes grew more outlandish. In two famous concerts, he became the first act to perform at Dodger Stadium since The Beatles in 1966, playing for a total of 100,000 people in the largest shows ever staged by a solo artist at the time. His parents, other relatives and neighbours and Rocket Records staffers were all flown in especially from London.
Emmylou Harris and her band and the James Gang, featuring Joe Walsh, entertained the crowd through the afternoon. Then Elton and his band stormed through a breathtaking 30-song set culminating in this cover of The Who‘s “Pinball Wizard.” It was another preview, of a single not to be heard until the following March, as a feature of Ken Russell’s movie version of Tommy.
“There is no moment in my life that will ever compare to the moment when Elton first appeared on stage at Dodger Stadium,” said fan Robert J. Weedman, quoted on eltonjohn.com. “My whole young being changed in that moment. I had never experienced fans so thrilled to be seeing a performer appear on stage.
“In that moment I felt one with music and everyone in Dodger Stadium. During the first set, it was just amazing when Elton unexpectedly threw his hat high above and into the crowd. Seeing those thousands of hands lift up high into the sky along with the roar of the crowd is something I will never forget.”
Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, July 13, 1985
The so-called “Global Jukebox” changed music and the way we consume it, not to mention its achievements on behalf of starving millions in Africa. Live Aid has become most readily signified and illustrated by Queen’s unforgettable performance in the Wembley Stadium portion of the global fundraiser. But a couple of hours after they took to the stage, at 8.50pm local time, Elton arrived and, with the help of Wham! and Kiki Dee, helped towards the astonishing telethon total of $127 million raised, or over $300 million in 2020 terms.
“Backstage at Live Aid, I had a huge area that I kind of decorated,” Elton told The Guardian years later. “I made sure there were seats for everyone, so that people who were playing could sit down and have a natter. Freddie [Mercury] came over after Queen had stolen the show. I said, “Freddie, nobody should go on after you – you were magnificent.” He said: ‘You’re absolutely right, darling, we were – we killed them.’”
Rossiya Concert Hall, Moscow, May 28, 1979
Now available on UMe’s Live From Moscow album, this historic show on his A Single Man tour made Elton the first major Western star to play behind the Iron Curtain. As he performed solo and with percussionist Ray Cooper, the boundary-crossing performance (broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 1 at the time) broadened his worldwide appeal even further.
“I can honestly say it has been one of the best experiences of my life,” Elton said after the Rossiya Hall concert. “It was one of the most memorable and happy tours I have been on. The last show was probably one of the best concerts I’ve ever given in my life. Working with Ray, with just the two of us on stage, was both exhilarating and challenging.”
Sydney Entertainment Centre, Australia, December 1-14, 1986
This remake of one of Elton’s signature ballads came from his run of shows in the first half of December, on his 26-date Tour De Force of Australia and New Zealand. This time around, the wigs in his wardrobe included Mozart, a mohawk, and Tina Turner. Sterling accompaniment came from the 88-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Despite a rough-voiced John suffering from severe throat problems during the run of shows, the performance of “Candle In The Wind” made the song a UK hit single for the second of three occasions.
“It was such an extraordinary event really,” the MSO’s then-concertmaster, violinist Rob John, told eltonjohn.com. “A six-week commitment dragging an extra hundred people round the countryside. In those days it was a fairly crazy type of notion. Other tours that are done here with other artists, it’s a couple of shows here and one show there, type of thing. I think most of us were actually really bloody excited from the start! Because of the opportunity to do something so different.”
21st Century Spectacles
Madison Square Garden, New York, October 20, 2000
This performance at what, by now, was one of Elton’s regular haunts, was turned into
the One Night Only album in what was then record time. It was released as an album, and an extended DVD, just three weeks after the event, an unheard-of turnaround at the time, with expert and nimble-fingered production by Phil Ramone.
As at Live Aid, Kiki Dee was again on hand to reprise “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” in a glittering show that also featured guest appearances by Ronan Keating, Bryan Adams, Anastacia and Mary J. Blige. “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the 11-minute epic from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, provided the stirring scene-setter for an excited New York crowd.
Colosseum, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, 2012
Elton’s first residency in Las Vegas, The Red Piano, extended to 247 shows between 2004 and 2009. But then in 2011, he mounted a second extravaganza in Sin City, The Million Dollar Piano, this time over a seven-year period (but “only” 197 shows). This performance in the Colosseum series sees Elton and his band revisiting one of his most soulful anthems of the 1970s.
Vintagerock.com’s review of the subsequent DVD release said admiringly that it was “worthy of the man’s larger-than-life historic live performances and fantastic songs…wearing a gold cape, John begins the 18-song concert with a rousing ‘The Bitch Is Back’ and ‘Bennie And The Jets’ medley.
“The sound is stellar, the piano clear, backing instruments mixed perfectly (including a small string section), vocals and horns well-placed, and longtime drummer Nigel Olsson’s double-bass drum driving it all. Davey Johnstone’s guitar counters the ivories in lock-step, and back to the 70s we go.”
Botanic Park, Adelaide, December 4-5, 2019
Elton’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour opened in September 2018 and had already grossed over $125 million by the end of its first leg just six months later. Here we see highlights of his soldout Adelaide shows; the vast Australasian leg continued all the way into March 2020, before even he had to return to the pavilion, as coronavirus put paid to the schedule for the rest of the year. But nothing can, or ever will, dilute the performing reputation of Captain Fantastic.
Read more about Elton John’s career-changing opening night at the Troubadour.