Better than: Any of your mom's other favorite live acts.
He played "Tiny Dancer." He said it was for the ladies, but I know that deep down, he was playing it for me.
The rest of Elton John's impressive 29-song set list Friday night might have been for others in the packed BankAtlantic center, but nobody with a soft spot for John's hits left disappointed.
Originally, it wasn't upsetting that parking took so long that I didn't catch the warm-up act, but when I walked in to find two guys playing "Highway to Hell" on electric cellos, I knew I'd been wrong. Turns out they were Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, Croatian lunatics in their early twenties who joined the band last year and were easily the crowd favorites Friday night. They had more stage presence than the rest of the band combined, banging their heads and contributing heartily to the performance's huge arrangements.
That's not to say the rest of the band wasn't playing their guts out -- it just didn't look like it. Bass player Bob Birch's lines hit you square in the chest at several points in the night, but that doesn't mean he didn't stand there looking like some kind of stagnant combination of Tommy Wiseau and Connor McCleod. Guitar player David Johnston picked up some of the slack, but when your frontman is sitting behind a piano with his hands busy, you've gotta do more than that to keep it interesting for the eyeballs next to all those happy ears.
The music itself was exciting and punchy, with many of the songs (especially the new stuff) sounding heavier than the album versions. John, wearing red specs and a sequined purple outfit, cut right to the chase, playing several songs off of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road before pounding out hit after hit on his massive Yamaha piano. Every song had an extended piano solo in the middle, and every song ended with John leaping off the bench to stomp around the stage, point at audience members, yell "thank you," and collect applause.
John gleefully mugged for the audience during his solos, and, by the end of the night, even a flick of his wrist could elicit yells and applause. Despite the relatively static stage setup, a combination of engaging light design, giant sing-along classics, and honed showmanship from John made the evening a big success. John waited a long time after playing the opening chord to "Bennie and the Jets" -- he knew that everyone in the arena knew the song, and he was going to let them wait.
The most energetic song of the night was probably "Levon," the fourth of the night and the first not off of Yellow Brick Road. The band was into it, the crowd was into it, and the cello guys looked to be having the time of their young lives watching John slowly rise from his bench during an improv solo. John changed the song just enough to be unpredictable, and a Baptist revival-style breakdown was new, fresh, and a lot of fun to hear.
While there were certainly young people around, the concert seemed to be a much bigger draw for those who at some point owned John's albums on vinyl -- during "Tiny Dancer," for example, a drunk middle-aged man in a sweaty white dress shirt had to be told it was not OK to be dancing in the aisles. He was later spotted throwing a green feather boa on young women. It was also during that song that slight whiffs of marijuana turned into someone-quite-close-to-me-is-high sniffs of marijuana, and there was more than one person doing it. (Row C, seat 12ish -- I saw you.)
The most pleasant surprise of the evening was John's songs from The Union, a 2010 collaboration with legendary session player Leon Russell. Many of the albums songs are mostly piano, backing vocals and folksy percussion, but putting a whole band behind songs like "Hey Ahab" gave them a whole new sound, especially with the cello guys jumping out of their chairs headbanging harder than that one cousin you have with the weird goatee and shirts with no sleeves.
Another off that album, "Gone to Shiloh," is sung mostly by Russell on the album, but John taking all the vocals gave the tune way more muscle. Russell sounded like Neil Young before Neil Young did, but there's something about John's baritone that really sends the quieter songs home.
If the audience was ever tired, John made sure they were energized at the end -- just when everyone thought it was over, Johnston whipped out some double-neck 6/12-string number and John jumped into "I'm Still Standing." Many people were sitting, but they weren't anymore, and going directly into "The Bitch Is Back" pumped them up even more. I haven't heard that many old people yelling "bitch" since Rep. Paul Ryan proposed cutting Medicare.
It was after 11 p.m. when he came out for an encore, with the crowd on their feet cheering louder than they had three hours earlier. He walked around the front of the stage signing everything from ticket stubs to a green top hat made of pipe cleaners. (The hat belonged to a guy named Nathan from Key West, who, of course, has a pipe-cleaner top hat business.)
John sat down at the piano and said "I wouldn't be sitting here at this time in my life if it weren't for this song." He played "Your Song," and everyone slowly left as the lights came up. It was a good night.
Set list: 01 - Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting
02 - Bennie and the Jets
03 - Grey Seal
04 - Levon
05 - Madman Across the Water
06 - Holiday Inn
07 - Tiny Dancer
08 - Philadelphia Freedom
09 - All the Young Girls Love Alice
10 - Harmony
11 - Candle in the Wind
12 - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
13 - Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)
14 - I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
15 - Hey Ahab
16 - Gone to Shiloh
17 - Monkey Suit
18 - Funeral for a Friend
19 - Believe
20 - Someone Saved My Life Tonight
21 - Honky Cat
22 - Sad Songs (Say So Much)
23 - Daniel
24 - Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
25 - Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
26 - I'm Still Standing
27 - The Bitch is Back
28 - Crocodile Rock
29 - Your Song
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And, just to be sure you hear it at least once, here's the studio version of "All the Young Girls Love Alice":