Perhaps it’s something to do with becoming a father. Elton John has cleaned up his act.
At New York’s Madison Square Garden last night, the U.K. singer gave a preview of his new slimmed-down show that will be rolling out across the U.S. over the next few months, and then around the world through November.
This time, there are no inflatable breasts and phallic bananas. The Las Vegas glitz of the Red Piano Tour is replaced by a stark black stage. Instead of Pamela Anderson pole-dancing, the veteran band studiously delivers 27 songs.
The jukebox of biggest hits kicks off promisingly with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” embellished with flourishes from John’s longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” rocks so hard that nobody seems to notice that it’s actually Wednesday.
Then John introduces “my idol” Leon Russell -- an imposing figure who looks like Santa Claus and Gandalf rolled into one. Russell, inducted this week into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by John, joins him to perform tracks from their album “the Union,” released last year.
Gregg Allman joins the two onstage to share the vocals on “Gone to Shiloh.” The eight songs with Russell, such as “When Love Is Dying,” are ambitious though rarely reach the heights of John’s solo work.
John is dressed down for the Big Apple compared with his usual flamboyance: He wears shades, a purple shirt and a dark coat embroidered with a girl sprouting from a genie bottle.
He has replaced his sophisticated video screens used on previous tours with some alarmingly literal effects. Golden lighting is used for “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” blue for “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and a picture of a flame for “Candle in the Wind.”
Things also go off the boil with a couple of songs from 1971’s “Madman Across the Water.”
“Rocket Man” from 1972 is stretched to breaking point over 15 minutes with endless repeats of the title, just in case we missed it the first time.
The accelerator kicks in just in time, with coruscating versions of “The Bitch Is Back” and “Burn Down the Mission.”
The three-hour show isn’t John at his outrageous showman best, though it shows why he is a consummate entertainer capable of selling 250 million records. The crowd in the 20,000-capacity arena waves lighters, sings every word, dances to “Crocodile Rock” and cheers as John declares the hall his favorite venue. He ends with an emotional encore of “Your Song,” dedicated to New York, “a great city.”
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Elton John is on Universal. Albums are available from about $8.98 in the U.S, or 4.98 pounds in the U.K. Download fees vary across services.
John’s tour dates are at http://www.eltonjohn.com/concerts.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)