Elton John
The Colosseum at Caesars Palace; Las Vegas


What if every show was your last?

Saturday May 12, 2018 was Sir Elton Hercules John’s last show of his long-running second residency, The Million Dollar Piano, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. To elaborate, it was Elton John’s last Saturday show of his last weekend before his last Tuesday show before his last Wednesday show before his last Thursday show before the beginning of his last tour, which will last three years.

A Wembley veteran, John knows how to make any Saturday feel special for a large group of his fans. He points directly at you while he sings “Your Song,” but clarifies between songs that he isn’t really pointing directly at you or anyone else, and that he can’t see one thing or another from stage, what with all the lights and sunglasses and all. It’s our Saturday; it’s his show.

Honestly, Elton John doesn’t have to do shit to connect with his fans. The bond happened — without consent — decades ago when songs like “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” and “Crocodile Rock” first traveled the airwaves. All of which, when performed on the night of May 12, 2018, made the audience collectively gasp in exaltation and immediately regress into a state of juvenile bliss, proving the longevity of that bond.

Elton John also seemed invigorated and invested in the moment, and his voice was tireless, though I could be wrong, seeing as it was masked with high doses of digital reverb. I imagine that he’d slow down only if the applause were to die down.

To ensure it did not die down, John led the applause after every song, walking ‘round the stage while raising his arms in triumph and smiling, acknowledging, as if to say, “Here we are together! Look who it is! It’s you! It’s me!” He came off as cute, arrogant, fun-loving, confident, modest, professional, appreciative, self-conscious, comfortable, and in control: a bandleader and a crowd-pleaser.

The clearest connection came when John revealed, directly or indirectly, the heart under the rhinestone jacket(s): A man who values his friends and family, collaborators and fans, but a man ready to retire, wary of his long-standing celebrity status, eager to spend more time at home with the husband and kids.

The most muddled attempt at connection occurred when physical distance between John and audience was allowed to be breached. During “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” the VIPs in the first handful of rows filed onstage to crowd around John and his million-dollar piano, the one-of-a-kind LED-lit Yamaha. What could go wrong?

An uninvited woman bum-rushes stage right. The guard in the suit catches her before she collides with John’s back. The lady complies and puts her hands up in surrender as the guard pushes her toward backstage, giving her a few you-piece-of-shit-motherfucker shakes while doing so. Elton John probably would have given her a lot worse.

It happens here and there: disruptive fan meets John’s fast temper. John storms off. Show’s over. Sure, nobody likes a heckler, but what does Sir Elton John expect people to do during a bruiser like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”? Stand around like good girls and boys, snapping close-ups on their smartphones? Truthfully, I’d be dead meat if they let me up on that stage — sometimes my body can’t help but translate the madness inherent in music.

And has he really set such a good example by jumping on top of all those pianos over the years? If the goal is to discourage rowdy behavior, why “Saturday”? Why not “Shooting Star”? Or something with a chilling effect, like “Someone’s Final Song,” “The Last Song,” or “I Am Your Robot”?

Better yet, swap pianos, and invite the VIPs to do a Penn & Teller on a decoy piano, while remastered versions of John’s 30+ studio albums blare simultaneously at a deafening level over the palace’s PA. We’ve heard “Rocket Man” enough while shopping for our groceries. What is there left to learn from hearing it again, even if it’s live and in-person? Where is the magic in repetition?

Of course, there is magic in repetition, and Ray Cooper proves it, as he hand-dances like Lieutenant Data and shakes his tambourine like a Baptist minister inducing hypnosis and submission through high-decibel vocal-trance. John and Cooper go it alone on “Indian Sunset,” and it’s big enough to carry the Colosseum, maybe even knock David’s dick off. Cooper strikes all sorts of congas, cymbals, toms, and tubular bells — everything but the gong.

That gong sits there in the back like a subplot. The suspense is mounting. I’m biting my nails for two hours, thinking, “Ray Cooper hit the bells, the toms, the cymbals, the timpani, the congas, everything… everything but that gong. When in the name of Jay Sarno is Cooper going to strike that gong?”

Of course, Ray Cooper waits until the encore (“Circle of Life” accompanied by bootleg Lion King visuals) to strike the gong.

Then you’ve got John Mahon with even more bells and whistles, more Gong Show than gong. He’s having barrels of fun, in spite of a broken bone.

Then you’ve got white-gloved Nigel Olsson holding down the fort with a kit including a pair of double-barrel bass drums, Davey Johnstone and Matt Bissonette on guitars, Kim Bullard on keyboards, and Elton John. Keys, guitars, and drums: nothing but percussion onstage.

If they were dialing it in, they fooled me. They jam very expensive jams, precious gemstone jams, technically rigid, melodically precise but emotionally raucous. “Bennie and the Jets’” Gmaj7 was taken to its logical end and further. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” dissolved into, you guessed it, a bluesy outro, which the crowd mistook as one of those drawn-out rock endings and started clapping. Realizing their mistake, but too stubborn to stop, scatters of clapping continued throughout the roughly one-minute outro.

So much clapping, overall, and singalongs, and who am I to tell people not to enjoy themselves, but damned if it wouldn’t be nice to see Elton John perform in a smaller venue with less clapping and less singalongs.

It’s unfortunate that celebrity status does not wax and wane, or that alternate timelines can’t be explored. Imagine Anonymous Elton, named Reginald Kenneth Dwight, or John Elton, possessed by the same amount of genius and showmanship, but free from his catalog, perceived expectations and professional obligations, free to arrange, elaborat,e and expand in the limitless universe of sound, uninterested in maintaining his fanbase, motivated only by the music.

Or, what if he had thousands instead of millions of adoring fans, had co-written the same body of work with Bernie Taupin, but played those big pop songs to attentive audiences in small clubs instead of giant arenas. Yes, the power of performance is decimated by high-capacity distractions. In other words, I don’t really like clapping.

But I doubt there is an alternate timeline where Sir Elton Hercules John would ever settle for anything small. When Vegas called, he said “yes.” And that was years ago. He cozied up and settled in, bleeding out the Red Piano, watching termites nibble the bow of Cleopatra’s Barge, retrieving Wynn’s damaged Picasso from the lava fields of the Mirage, cutting curled fleurs-de-lis for vaporwave syrup, molting Donald Duck under a straw hat, splashing back at the striped octopus in a martini glass. By going big, into the big mix, into the continuous shuffle of an eight-deck shoe, giants like John diminish in size. Just another expensive glass of wine at the orgy.

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