Concert Review: Elton John (Saturday, November 30 at Allstate Arena - With Setlist)

Concert Review: Elton John (Saturday, November 30 at Allstate Arena - With Setlist)
Photo by Barry Brecheisen

Flanked by an eleven piece backing band, Elton John performed primarily a greatest hits set to a sold out crowd Saturday night at Allstate Arena... 

It's easy to forget just how many hits Elton John has had over the course of nearly forty-five years.  A whopping fifty-eight singles in the Billboard Top 40 is impressive enough... but his placement of at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100 for each of thirty-one consecutive years between 1970 and 2000 is even more incredible still.

While the quality of some of that material can be debated, there's simply no denying John's unlikely and impressive ability to appeal to multiple generations of pop and rock fans (as evidenced Saturday night by the guy in front of me in a Nirvana t-shirt and the fifteen year old girl next to me).

So Elton John has always had hits.  Even in times when logic would seem to dictate that he shouldn't - like the dawn of MTV in the early eighties, an era which suddenly rendered as his pop contemporaries the more TV ready faces of artists like Simon Le Bon and Michael Jackson - the hits kept coming (a fact that can almost certainly be attributed to his willingness to change with the times and adapt to new pop trends as well as the strength of his songwriting partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, with whom he's collaborated on more than thirty albums since 1967).

And the fruits of that songwriting relationship were on full display Saturday night during a set that opened with the first side of one of the duo's most successful creations: 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album (all total, Saturday's set would feature eight tracks from the legendary record).  Also featured Saturday was a pair of stripped down tracks from John's latest Taupin partnered effort The Diving Board, bringing things full circle.

Elton John The Diving Board 2013 album cover art

John was backed by a five piece band on "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" to open the show (a performance which prominently featured the scorching guitar work of John's sideman of more than forty years, Davey Johnstone).  That number swelled to nine as four backing vocalists took the stage starting with "Grey Seal," and eventually topped out at eleven as the 2 Cellos of Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser rounded things out beginning with "Levon."

It was that backing band that was John's secret weapon all night.  It was clear from his between song banter (which was unusually clear for the Allstate Arena) that Elton's voice was not at its best (John actually thought he was losing his voice only weeks ago on the first night of the tour).  His backing singers did the heavy lifting, especially on the evening's higher/older notes, most admirably on a rousing rendition of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" midway through the set that neither skipped a beat nor missed a note.

While John should be credited for going full throttle all night despite the fact that his voice was clearly taxed, those four backing vocalists were oustanding.  Led by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rose Stone (of Sly and The Family Stone) and her daughter Lisa (who's worked with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan to name but a few), the vocal quartet was rounded out by Táta Vega and  Jean Witherspoon (Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Madonna and more).

And the sold out crowd made note of John's efforts frequently, bestowing upon him a standing ovation following literally every song - something I've never seen before at a seated arena performance.  John responded in kind with a bow each time and ultimately sounded his best on "Philadelphia Freedom," which competed with "Rocket Man" as two of the band's more well-received efforts of the evening.

Elton John setlist - Saturday, November 30, 2013 - Allstate Arena Chicago

Holding the attention of a crowd in the cavernous arena setting can be difficult to accomplish without the accompaniment of a full band.  It's a risk for any performer and in my concertgoing experience only a select few have truly pulled it off (Prince and Paul McCartney for instance).  But John more than rose to the occasion with a rousing, energetic rendition of "The One" that relied on nothing more than his piano playing and raw voice.  There were no backing vocalists to assist and John nailed it. The new "Oceans Away" continued the solo portion of the set which turned out to be one the evening's highlights.

From there, the full band kicked it up a notch, saving the most rocking material for the end with "I'm Still Standing" and "The Bitch is Back" before closing the main set appropriately with "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)."  Following the show's only pause, Elton John returned from encore with a performance that found the sold out crowd dancing in the aisles during an extended, rollicking take on "Crocodile Rock."

- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)

(Jim Ryan also hosts "The Rock N' Roll Radio Program" Sundays at 6PM central on WIMS and WHFB - streaming at and via the free TuneIn Radio app for the smart phone or tablet - Just search "WIMS" to find it on TuneIn)

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