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20 Oct 2010

At The Beacon Theatre, By Brian Gold

Well, in a word, "BRILLIANT"!!!! A once in a lifetime show. For those who were able to watch it live on the FUSE network, you already know what I'm talking about. It will be re-broadcast on FUSE on October 24th. I'm told that there were some microphone issues in the very beginning of the broadcast. There were none in the theater, so hopefully, that will be fixed on the re-broadcast.

Elton came out to HUGE applause and a standing ovation. He told us that first Leon would play some of his own songs, then they would play the ENTIRE new CD, The Union, and then Elton would play a set of his own songs. He said that this would be one of only 2 times that they would play the entire CD. He then introduced Leon Russell.

As Leon took the stage, he and Elton embraced, Elton left, and Leon started his set. Since I was facing Elton, I could only see the back of Leon's head. He appears to have the same hairstylist as Santa Clause. MAN can that guy play the piano! His style is, in many ways, similar to Elton's. He has a lighter touch, but still uses the piano as a percussion instrument (it is one). VERY catchy songs... some familiar, others not, but still earning him standing ovations after several numbers. I couldn't see his facial expressions, but I honestly don't think he had any. He just sat there, played the piano, and sang. Never said a WORD to the audience! To paraphrase from a quote about US President Calvin Coolidge, "Leon... he don't say much. But when he does... he don't say much." But when he writes a song, BOY does he say a lot! Some brilliant lyrics in there. I really need to listen to some of his CDs.

Leon has a nasal, reedy voice that I honestly don't like much, but when combined with the likes of Elton, it sounds far better. Leon really got the crowd going on a couple of his songs. More than just a warm-up act... he is a pro, and a great songwriter. It was obvious from the crowd reactions that most people were there to see Elton, but Leon also had his fans present. Many were singing and dancing to Leon's set.

Leon's setlist was as follows:

Tight rope
Prince of Peace
Song for You
Delta Lady
Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms
Stranger in a Strange Land

When Elton took the stage, things really started to pick up. They played the full CD, as promised, in running order. Starting off with "If It Wasn't For Bad", and playing all the way through to "The Hands Of Angels".

Their setlist of songs performed together was:

If It Wasn't for Bad
Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes
Hey Ahab
Gone to Shiloh
Jimmie Rodgers' Dream
There's No Tomorrow
Monkey Suit
The Best Part of the Day
A Dream Come True
I Should Have Sent Roses
When Love Is Dying
Hearts Have Turned to Stone
Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)
In the Hands of Angels

Elton's comments about that last song were that they had already finished laying down all the tracks for the CD when Leon came in the next morning and said "Wait... I wrote another song last night in the hotel. It was a tribute to working on this project together, and we were in tears". Elton was just watching Leon playing that song mouthing the words along with him. But I'm getting WAY ahead of myself.

The Union is, in my opinion, one of Elton's best albums in MANY years. It has a bit of everything... gospel, country, rock, ballads... all around, an excellent collection of songs. It's obvious that working with Leon really inspired Elton to get out of his comfort zone a bit, work differently, write differently, and record differently. It's often hard to tell which songs were written by Elton and which were written by Leon. It's also hard to tell which lyrics were Bernie's and which were Leon's. It's a perfect blend of two enormous talents whose styles mesh perfectly creating a whole that is greater than the sum of it's parts. Neither one of them could have done this CD alone. There a few really great rockers on the CD such as "Hey Ahab". This song is FAR better live than on the CD! Monkey Suit had the whole audience up and dancing.

"Gone to Shiloh" has a gorgeous lyric by Bernie. Definitley a song I want to hear again.

"A Dream Come True" has the feeling of a southern (US) church on a Sunday with gospel music just pouring out of it. Hand clapping, and the gospel choir going wild....

"When Love is Dying" is a beautiful ballad. Elton and Leon trade off on the lead vocals. I just can't help thinking of a line that I read in a review once. When speaking of Elton's vocals, the writer described them as "A voice from Mount Olympus". It's so true. Elton's vocals are so powerful and so beautiful. On most songs, Leon holds his own on the vocals, but not on this one. Elton just shines. Outshines Leon by far. I love the song, but it does show the weaknesses in Leon's vocals.

"I Should Have Sent Roses" is a terrific ballad. Leon takes the lead vocals for the first half of the song, with Elton on backups. This works really well. On the second verse, Elton takes the lead. Leon takes over again on the chorus with Elton once again singing backup. A very wise decision by producer T Bone Burnett. It makes the song work perfectly.

"Hearts Have Turned to Stone" has Leon's stamp all over it. Without looking at the CD notes, I am sure that Leon wrote it. An uptempo mix of country and gospel. Elton adds some terrific vocals during the chorus, but this song belongs to Leon. It was beautiful watching and hearing them perform it live. It's obvious how much respect Elton has for Leon. Neither was trying to "out-do" the other. They just blended perfectly (in most cases).

"Never Too Old" is a song that I first heard Elton perform live solo on the piano. I liked it, but I didn't love it. It reminded me too much of too many other mediocre efforts of Elton's from past albums. I have to say that knowing this song as a solo, piano-vocal song definitely gave me a specific opinion of it. Mediocre. I'm happy to say that with a full arrangement and with Leon's voice on the second verse, this song really comes together. The beautiful backing vocals on the chorus, and the instrumental arrangement really adds a lot to this song. I ALWAYS prefer hearing Elton's songs with just Elton and the piano, since that is the way I perform myself. This song appears to be the one exception. It's MUCH better on the CD than live/solo.

"In The Hands of Angels" is a beautiful gospel song written by Leon. With the backing vocalists singing like a "choir of angels", and the church-style organ giving this song a wonderful slow, southern feeling. It's a love song to Elton by his fan, and idol, Leon.

I know I've left out a couple of songs in this article. They are for you to discover on your own. It's not necessarily that I like them more or less. I just felt that I should leave something to the listener.

There are 2 bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the CD/DVD. "Mandalay Again", and "My Kind of Hell".

I have only seen pieces of the Cameron Crowe documentary that is on the DVD in the deluxe version. Well worth it in my opinion. Even though I haven't seen it in it's entirety yet, it promises to show a fascinating insight into Elton working in the studio and working on a collaborative effort. Things we have rarely seen about Elton before.

Even after you are able to watch the live show at the Beacon Theater, I'm sorry to say that you will not have had the same experience that around 3000 of us just had. Hearing these songs live with a 15 piece band, the TV cameras rolling, and the incredible energy of both the audience and the performers is something that can only be experienced. Seeing it on DVD is never the same as being there. I just hope that the broadcast captured the fun and party-like atmosphere in this small but beautiful theater.

A note about the band... they were, as Elton put it, "The crème de la crème". They learned a total of 60 songs in around 4 days! All 14 of the new songs, Leon's entire set, Elton's entire set, plus the songs that will be performed at the "Speaking Clock Revue". No small feat, but these musicians truly are the best.

After playing through The Union, it was time for Elton's set. I couldn't wait to hear what he'd play. I was hoping for the best, but feared the worst. I got a lot of the former and a little bit of the latter. First, let me say that it was REALLY interesting to watch Elton play with a completely different band. Especially when using a 4-piece horn section, slide guitar, mandolin, and a double bass! You could just see how much fun he was having. He very wisely started his set with several old, some unknown (except by fans, of course), and classic songs. Leading off with "Burn Down The Mission". Nice to hear it stripped down without the HUGE band/orchestra sound. Well, 15 pieces is a pretty big band, but you know what I mean. A great choice to start off with. He continued with Levon, Tiny Dancer and Ballad of a Well-Known Gun (YES!!!). Tiny Dancer, Take Me to The Pilot, and later, Your Song were also in his set. His setlist was as follows:

Burn Down the Mission
Tiny Dancer
Ballad of A Well Known Gun
I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues
Your Song
Take Me to the Pilot
Sad Songs Say So Much
The Bitch is Back

For some reason, as you can see by the setlist, he felt compelled to throw in "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues", "Sad Songs", and "The Bitch Is Back". Frankly, "Amoreena", "Can I Put You On", "No Shoe Strings On Louise", "Come Down In Time", and "Where's the Shoorah" would have been far more appropriate. The audience was obviously made up of hard-core fans. Not only did the older, relatively unknown songs go better with the new material on The Union, but the ones he did play were thrilling for all of us to hear. He could have just kept on playing oldies... both known and unknown, and still brought the house down.

When the last notes of "The Bitch Is Back" had been played, Elton took his bows, walking across the stage, waving to the balconies, and left the stage. The band also began to leave the stage, when everyone suddenly turned around and came back onto the stage with Elton escorting Leon. Elton said that they had not rehearsed an encore, so they would have to play a song that they had already played! They played "Hey Ahab" a second time. A great choice, since it had gotten everyone up and dancing the first time. The second time around was even better. The backup singers really let loose, and you could see that Elton was having the time of his life. Since the audience had already heard the song once, the entire theater was on it's feet and dancing.

Toward the end of the show, Elton thanked everyone for having had the patience to listen to 14 new songs. The round of applause he received was, at least for me, for having had the privilege of being there to listen to them. I've had the entire CD for over a week now, though it was just released today, the day of the concert. Most people had never heard ANY of the songs before. It took tremendous self-restraint for me NOT to listen to the CD until after the concert. I really wanted to listen to the show with a completely fresh ear. Having now been to the show, and then listening to the CD afterwards, I'm truly glad I had the self-control not to listen to it beforehand. These songs are just dying to be played live. The love that went into writing them and working on them is crystal clear when hearing them live. Maybe it was the crowd, maybe it was the small theater, maybe it was the incredible band, or maybe it was two singer/songwriters who are mutual fans and friends performing with such joy. All I can say is that the songs all sounded very different live, and in my opinion, far, far better. Even so, The Union will be on my iPod for "a LONG, long time".

Live from New York, it's Brian Gold!!!

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