Elton John, Wembley Arena, London

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The Independent Culture

If ubiquity is a skill, Reginald Kenneth Dwight has it in spades. Like a chubbier Zelig, he has always been there, gate-crashing The Who's rock opera Tommy, playing piano at Diana's funeral and otherwise sharing the limelight with everyone from Eminem to Blue to Posh and Becks. No great shock, then, that seeing him live induces a profound sense of déjà vu. Like it or not, John's voice and considerable number of great songs are a familiar part of British pop culture.

He toddles on stage in what appears to be a staid black suit. When he turns his back, though, you notice a sizeable motif that looks like a spattering of pigeon-droppings. The tinted glasses and preposterous hair are present and correct, and an earring that even Bet Lynch might have thought twice about dangles from his right ear.

Thought it has its share of potential aces, the first half of the set lacks spark and pace. Thus, while John's sausage fingers cavort dextrously in the honky-tonk piano solo in "Benny & the Jets", the Eighties keyboard sounds he uses on "Daniel" and "Philadelphia Freedom" sound horribly dated. "Rocket Man" barely has ignition; far less lift-off. The problem is the song's noodling new arrangement, which, coupled with John's reluctance to tackle the higher notes, makes for a jaded listen.

Against all odds, "Candle in the Wind" is excellent - even strangely touching. It's a measure of the song's inherent strength that it has survived its awkward reinvention as a threnody for Diana, Princess of Wales, and with Bernie Taupin's original lyric reinstated, the song has regained its dignity. Unfortunate, then, that "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" appears to have swung the other way. Tonight's hideously saccharine version sounds like something Richard Clayderman might have penned for an episode of Baywatch.

Later, the singer makes a number of dedications. "Sacrifice" goes out to Watford FC's chairman, Graham Simpson; "Are You Ready for Love?" is for John's god-daughter, Lauren, and Norman Cook's Southern Fried Records, which had the foresight to re-release the track earlier this year. The latter song is excellent, its Motown-like strings and propulsive bassline bringing much-needed groove and finally lifting the crowd to its feet.

John's guitarist of 35 years, Davey Johnstone, deserves special mention. A formidable musical presence who bears a striking resemblance to Jimmy Savile, Johnstone helps Elton to end the evening on a high, his stoked riffing at the start of "The Bitch Is Back" ushering in a formidable three-song combo that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. As John segues from "I'm Still Standing" to "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting", he is finally motoring, and his Benny Hill grins come thick and fast. The bitch is, indeed, back, though at times tonight he was lacking in bite.

SECC, Glasgow, tonight (www.eltonjohn.com)

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