Elton John has a bit of a reputation for being, well, difficult. Once, when staying in a hotel in America, he phoned his management company in London and shouted: “It’s too f***ing windy here – can you do something about it?”
But onstage in Cape Town he’s an absolute gentleman, a consummate professional. Maybe too professional. He’s impeccably dressed, his stylish black coat complementing his red-tinted glasses. And impeccably punctual.
A few minutes before the scheduled 8pm start time, he quietly walks out, sits down at his Yamaha grand piano, and begins playing. No airs. No graces. Just the resolve of a man who, in over 40 years of doing this, has picked up a thing or two about entertaining a stadium full of strangers: play to the front rows; let the songs (and the giant screens and huge speakers) do the rest.
So, he warms us up with a few classics. ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’, the opener of his vintage ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ album, gives way to a forceful take on ‘The Bitch Is Back’, and a trio of ‘Madman Across The Water’ tunes. The title track is as dark and spooky as original and, backed by that eternal fan favourite ‘Tiny Dancer’ and the lesser known ‘Levon’, transports much of the mature audience back to 1971.
It’s back to the present (sort of) with minor mid-’90s hit ‘Believe’ – one of his best latter-year songs – which holds up well to the rest of a set that’s big on his ’70s output, and small on small talk. Between-song banter is limited to off-the-cuff comments like a nonchalant “let’s do this” (before launching into one of the best pop songs of the past 50 years, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’).
Interpreted here with haunting beauty, ‘Somebody Saved My Life Tonight’ gets a bit more credence as John dubs it his best song, but it’s only ‘Lion King’ hit ‘Circle Of Life’ that finds him talking at length – about the beauty of South Africa which lures him back for annual “invigorating” visits.
The crowd laps it up, of course, just like they do the “la la la la la” singalong during the chorus of ‘Crocodile Rock’ later – John’s only concession to the audience participation shtick that’s a prerequisite for stadium shows. For the remainder of his set, he’s sat behind his piano, only getting up once in a while between songs to clap, point in various random directions, and amble across the stage.
That’s just fine, though. We’re here for the tunes – not speeches or triple somersaults – and he continues to deliver, reeling off hit after hit: ‘Daniel’, ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’, ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’, an extended jam version of ‘Rocketman’ only slightly marred by an overzealous keyboard player and some cheesy ’70s visuals, and ‘Sacrifice’ (lent a surreal air by the biltong vendor walking between the cheap seats).
The crack five-piece backing band take a break during his solo performance of ‘Candle In The Wind’, gathering their strength for a rock ‘n roll finale that includes ‘Benny And The Jets’, ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’. But for all John’s honky tonk piano hammering, Davey Johnstone’s guitar soloing and drummer Nigel Olsson’s mugging for the cameras, there’s no escaping how polished – and calculated – it all sounds.
The feeling is only reinforced by the encore: everyone disappears offstage without the usual fanfare, just so that they can return (punctually) two minutes later, because it’s expected.
Granted, the night’s closing songs are supreme (‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ and ‘Your Song’), but with John’s final departure as low key as his arrival exactly 2 hours and 25 songs earlier, you can’t help but wish he’d thrown a wobbly along the way. Or at least shown a little more spontaneity.
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.