A low layer of smoke drifted across the dimly lit stage and a haunting prelude on the organ signaled the beginning of an amazing event. The silhouette of a man approaching the grand piano, stage right, was all the crowd needed to go wild. Elton John's opening number, "Funeral for a Friend" grabbed the audience, and for two and a half hours he never let go.
It was the first of two sold-out concerts at L.A.'s Staples Center. Elton John told his fans that playing the arena was a homecoming of sorts. It was 44 years ago that Elton made his U.S. debut at the intimate West Hollywood club, The Troubador, for an audience of just 300. For this weekend's concerts he would perform for as many as 40,000. Los Angeles audiences are notoriously difficult, often displaying a jaded "So, impress me," attitude. But Elton had this crowd exactly where he's had his fans for more than four decades: in the palms of his talented hands. Talk was kept to a minimum as he dove from one hit to another throughout the lengthy set. Elton made a point of publicly acknowledging and thanking his longtime collaborator, poet and wordsmith Bernie Taupin. Their musical partnership has yielded more than 50 Top 40 hits and sold more than 300 million records.
Elton attacks the piano like a ragtime saloon player with the power and exuberance of a teenager. But Elton is a seasoned superstar and a deft performer and singer able to musically manipulate a mood from poignant ballad to bawdy rock and roll. His band of five musicians was tight, musically and visually. They were dressed in black Dolce & Gabbana suits and white shirts while Elton wore an electric Royal blue shirt and a knee-length navy overcoat studded with crystals. His back was emblazoned with the sparkly initials EJ. The effect was a subtle nod to the over-the-top stage personae Elton created 40 years earlier. While there was a multimedia showcase of videos and lights, the magic lay in the music. Hit after monster hit just scratched the surface of Elton's impressive catalogue. "Candle In the Wind", "Bennie and the Jets", "The Bitch is Back", "I'm Still Standing" and "Your Song" were among the back-to-back classics he played.
The drummer who was in Elton's original band, Nigel Olsson, was in rare form as was Elton's longtime guitarist and musical director, Davey Johnstone. His indispensable and immediately identifiable guitar overdrive on songs including "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" shot an energy through the arena. Bassist Matt Bissonette, keyboard player Kim Bullard and percussionist and vocalist John Mahon rounded out the tight ensemble backing Elton who kept the, crowd on it's feet much of the night. After the performance Bullard told me, "We keep it simple and loud."
I first met Elton John nearly 20 years ago. I flew to Atlanta to interview him for CNN when he was receiving a CARE Humanitarian of the Year Award. That hourlong on-camera conversation blossomed into a relationship of mutual respect and fondness that I'm proud to say continues to this day. But on Saturday night at Staples Center, I was not there as a friend of Elton John. I was a fan - one among thousands, caught up in the music and excitement that keeps the superstar still standing and still rocking.