Elton John, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham
Sunday 21 December 2008
Arch-revisionist and serial rehabilitator that I am, I'd normally be the last to cry "It's like punk never happened".
But seriously, did I miss the meeting where it became not only OK, but mandatory to like Elton John again? Somehow, despite everything – despite his craven brown-nosing of royalty, despite the cash-raking cynicism of "Step Into Christmas" – Elton John has, unlike fellow pop criminals Sting and Phil Collins, escaped the metaphorical guillotine and been restored to his status as ancien régime emperor, beneficently scattering crumbs from his table to lesser stars, who gratefully kiss the hem of his gown lest the invitation to the next zillion-pound birthday bash goes missing in the post. If ever there was a sign that we're in a rotten state, it's the way that everyone suddenly wants to be Elton John's mate.
None of which affects the good people of the West Midlands, of course, who simply like him and have done all along. And good luck to 'em. "I'm in a good mood tonight," the doddery dwarf promises. "We're going to have a lot of fun." The high point of which is batting about scores of giant balloons with the singer's face on them, or – for the front few rows – invading the stage for the encore.
But there's plenty to admire on the Red Piano tour, and plenty to take your mind off Elton's repulsive vocal style, barking indistinct staccato syllables in a mid-Atlantic accent, every "eye" sound transposed into an "aaa". (The first words of "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", for example, are "waddagaddadoo...".) And most of it must be credited to the show's designer, David LaChapelle.
Even if you hadn't seen his name on the poster, you'd hazard a guess at LaChapelle's involvement: campy pop art video montages, "ELTON" spelt out in Vegas hotel neon, teams of roadies in white boiler suits whose task it is to erect huge inflatables of red roses, stockinged legs, hot dogs, ice cream cones, stubbed fags, lipsticks and a huge overhead pair of boobs that shoot out white streamers.
"Rocket Man" is accompanied by a film re-creation of 1970s backstage hedonism starring, the singer pointedly reveals afterwards, a disguised Justin Timberlake as Elton John himself. Heaven forbid that he could modestly let it go unnoticed. Ego is everything. During the pre-encore interval, there's a booming voiceover reminding us that "He's defined showmanship for over 30 years...", "He's had seven consecutive No 1 albums..." and – here's the killer – "He's been knighted".
Which may be true, but let's leave the fawning to the minor nobles. This sans-culottes will never call him "Sir".
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