When Elton John sits down for his stripped-down concert with percussionist Ray Cooper at the Yas Arena tonight, the audience will see a very different act than the flamboyant showman of old.
A look at the evolution of Elton John's illustrious career
When Elton Hercules John sits down for his stripped-down concert with the percussionist Ray Cooper at the Yas Arena tonight, the Abu Dhabi audience will see a very different John from the flamboyant showman of popular folklore. Now 65, the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight has increasingly rebranded himself as an elder statesman of soulful singer-songwriter pop in recent years. By showcasing lost gems from his 1970s archives, as well as from his more musically sophisticated recent releases, the former clown prince of fancy-dress rock is now enjoying more public credibility and critical acclaim than he has seen for decades. We might almost say he has become - whisper it - cool.
These duo concerts with Cooper offer John a chance to set aside the peacock costumes and visual fireworks that can sometimes clutter his big-band shows, testing the strength of his songwriting in a relatively pure and intimate setting - as intimate as a 15,000-seat venue like the Yas Arena will allow, at least. The first half is essentially Elton unplugged, a solo performance for piano and voice. Cooper joins the singer for the second set, adding texture and muscle and rhythmic bounce, plus the warm camaraderie of long-time musical collaborators.
Widely considered the finest living master of the rock-drum solo, Cooper has played with a glittering galaxy of superstars in his four-decade career, including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Art Garfunkel and Billy Joel. But John remains the percussion maestro's longest and deepest working relationship, having played on every one of the singer's albums and toured with him extensively. Their duo shows are still a very rare beast, however. This minimalist cabaret-style format was first performed in the late 1970s, then revived in the mid-1990s, and again in 2009.
For most of his commercial prime, especially during his 1970s and 1980s heyday, John lived up to his cartoon reputation as the Dame Edna Everage of pop, a supersized diva notorious for his garish costumes, zany spectacles and bratty public tantrums. So long, in fact, that serious music fans forgot about his roots as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter with an uncanny flair for rapturous piano melodies and creamy, supple, emotionally charged vocals.
But something strange started to happen to the singer's reputation at the turn of the millennium, just as he turned 50. He sold off most of his outlandish clothing collection for charity, kicked his bad habits and received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. In short, he became respectable again. In 2002, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music in London. At Britain's Q awards in 2004, punk survivor Elvis Costello hailed John as a musical visionary. Over the past decade his songs have been rediscovered and reinvented by a new generation of bright young things, including Rufus Wainwright, Scissor Sisters, Lily Allen and Lady Gaga.
John's career rebranding began soon after he conquered his notorious drug habit and settled down with his long-term partner, David Furnish. He had been the biggest male solo artist in the world throughout the 1970s and 1980s, selling a staggering 250 million albums, spawning more than 50 hit singles in the UK and seven consecutive chart toppers in the US. His most famous song, Candle in the Wind, sold a staggering 33 million copies alone. But the huge hits began to dry up in the 1990s. And major commercial success can be a self-destructive dead end, of course, as John eventually realised.
"I had a single in the top 40 every year for 34 years in America," he has said, "and that drives you in the wrong direction." But after years of frustration, resenting younger singers and fruitlessly working with fashionable producers, John refocused his creative energy into being a singer-songwriter rather than a pop star.
Together with his career-long lyricist Bernie Taupin, he made a pact to give up desperately chasing the big mainstream hits. "We said: 'OK, we're not going to get played on the radio any more. It's everyone else's turn now. We never used to make records with any other thought than making a record. Let's go back to that.'"
John began his musical makeover with Songs from the West Coast (2000) and Peach Tree Road (2004), grown-up albums that reconnected with his pre-stardom roots as an English blue-eyed soul singer steeped in classic American country music, gospel and R&B. "The records have sold hardly anything but we're much happier doing it," he has claimed. "And at least I can sleep nights thinking: well, we've done the best we can."
Critics were generally positive about John's score for the award-winning stage musical version of Billy Elliot, launched in London in 2005 before spawning further productions across the globe. But even better reviews, possibly the best of his entire career, greeted the singer's 2010 album The Union, a collaboration with the cult country rock singer Leon Russell. Featuring guest appearances by Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Booker T Jones, this generous exercise in warm-hearted Americana climbed to number three on the US Billboard charts. In exchange for his highest profile album in decades, Russell gave John a shot of hard-won Nashville credibility.
Not that John has entirely bid goodbye to the Yellow Brick Road of excessive showmanship. Ending its five-year run in 2008, his Las Vegas show The Red Piano was a glittery greatest-hits package wrapped in giant ribbons of high-camp tinsel, cinematic theatricality and outlandish costumes. His latest Vegas production, The Million Dollar Piano, launched last year with an even more operatic stage setting - although the musical menu is significantly less hits-based, featuring more buried treasure from John's archives and recent, critically lauded albums.
Of course, considering his personal fortune is reportedly around US$600 million (Dh2.2 billion), John can afford to relax and experiment with his reputation as he settles into his fifth decade behind the piano. But respect is certainly due for his emotional maturity and creative reinvention. His candle may not burn quite as brightly these days, but his music still gives off a warm glow.
Elton John will perform tonight at Yas Arena. Ticket prices start at Dh295 for general admission and are available from www.thinkflash.ae and select Virgin Megastore outlets
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