x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sir Elton is still the Rocket Man as old hits are revitalised unplugged

Sir Elton's career seems to have gone full circle - and his stripped-down performance with percussionist Ray Cooper at Yas Arena last night did not disappoint.

Sir Elton John's songs shone during his unplugged performance with percussionist Ray Cooper at the Yas Arena last night.
Sir Elton John's songs shone during his unplugged performance with percussionist Ray Cooper at the Yas Arena last night.

There was a time where a new Elton John album was a major event.

But like most of the small number of legends still active four decades in, John's career seemed to have gone full circle both recording and performance wise.

His last four albums - beginning from 2001's Songs From The West Coast to last year's Grammy Award winning The Union - have seen the Rocket Man ditch the orchestral concept and soundtrack albums he's been messing with for a more traditional sound harking back to his beginnings in the early 1970's.

While none of these albums really troubled the charts, it began a musical purple patch serving as a reminder that underneath the colourful costumes and diva antics John is one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation.

Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind his occasional solo shows with percussionist Ray Cooper.

Those thinking the stripped-down performances are a cash-grab would be mistaken. John's biggest hits, from the towering Tiny Dancer to Someone Saved My Life Tonight, relied on a large backing band to allow those choruses to soar.

Coming on stage with these hits in skeletal form required a lot of faith in the power of these songs; they not only had to overcome a diminished vocal range caused by advanced age but an audience viewing blinding laser shows as a staple of modern live performances.

Heartwarmingly, it was the songs that won.

For more than two hours at John delivered a beautifully rendered set touching on all aspects of his career.

With only his piano for the first seventy minutes, John played a smorgasbord of classics.

Understanding the stripped-down format risks testing audience attention spans, John barely paused for breath as he tore through his hit-laden set.

While age robbed John of his signature falsetto years ago, it gifted him with a huskier voice that added more grit to the bluesy I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues and Philadelphia Freedom.

The ambitious Rocket Man also received a more humble approach. With John replacing those unachievable high notes with more a stoic tone, the song somehow became more mournful and elegiac.

On the flip-side, other classics sounded revitalised unplugged.

Nikita sounded sprightly without those horrible eighties synthesised drums while John didn't need a rhythm section for Honky Cat; his punchy playing had the crowd clapping along.

The second half of the performance saw super percussionist Ray Cooper join John to play some of the new material from The Union and other hits.

Cooper was responsible for the show's fireworks. He marauded the stage, jumping from tambourines, drums, cymbals and bongos to the xylophone -  sometimes within one song.

While the virtuoso playing sometimes threatened to overshadow the songs, Cooper knew when to instinctively sit back such as in Daniel and Indian Sunset when a tambourine was all that was needed.

While Cooper was a great presence, John could have come here and conquered on his own.

His personal performance not only celebrated a legendary career, but the power of great songwriting.

Not that John need assurance, but his place in music history is set.

?ssaeed@thenational.ae