Elton John’s ‘Million Dollar Piano’ a thoughtful look back

Elton John sits relaxed at the piano, talking about meeting Nelson Mandela and watching Honey Boo Boo.

“This is a wonderful life that I lead,” he tell us. “I’m enjoying it even more than ever.”

We believe him, and some of us can even feel a little grateful the 66-year-old spent part of his last 10 years on the Strip. Given the ticket prices, locals aren’t likely to go see him several times a year. But the option is on the table, has been more than 300 times since the Colosseum at Caesars Palace opened.

Small wonder then, that Caesars shows up in the video montage supporting “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a stroll through the singer’s career that’s computer-animated to look something like a pop-up book.

The Caesars marquee shows up next to one for “Billy Elliot,” the 2008 Broadway hit that came during his first run at Caesars. The musical pulls into The Smith Center for the Performing Arts on May 14, three nights after the man himself wraps up this batch of his “Million Dollar Piano” retrospective.

Stick to The Smith to hear the “Billy” tunes because “Piano” is decidedly a look back. But it’s a thoughtful look back, not just a phone-in of the hits. And it’s a revealing one if you’re sifting through “Gnomeo & Juliet” or the “Leather Jackets” album to find the core of his work.

Of 18 songs played, 13 of them were released from 1971 to 1975. Three are from “Madman Across the Water.” No wonder he has said he “had to go back to go forward” for his long-delayed 30th album, “The Diving Board,” finally due in September.

John’s last few albums, in fact, abandoned any stab at pop currency and returned to the timeless sound of the early ’70s. He even has a pair of cellists in the band — a Croatian duo know as 2Cellos — to approximate their string-prominent arrangements.

All this might explain the evening’s biggest curiosity, the “cinematic” piece, as he tells the crowd, called “Indian Sunset.” It runs nearly seven minutes on the “Madman” album, and he performs it here with assist from only Ray Cooper, his longtime percussion sidekick.

For casual fans, it’s a restroom break. For those who hung in with him over the years, a sign that the creative spirit is still alive. For casino executives who fret over whether it’s Vegas friendly? He earned it.

The casual fans are well tended anyway. The two-hour show’s bookends are more the fun you would expect on the Caesars stage. The “Also Sprach Zarathustra” fanfare synonymous with Elvis (and “2001: A Space Odyssey”) heralds his arrival in a Liberace cape, leading into the opening punches of “The Bitch Is Back” and “Bennie and the Jets.”

Most people know he lost the high end of his vocal range eons ago. And the Colosseum sound is so crystal clear, little flourishes from the eight-piece band (plus four singers) that probably aren’t even noticed in sports arenas can distract from his piano and voice on chestnuts such as “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer.”

But the heart of the show comes 40 minutes in, when the band risers roll away in two directions and John is left at the piano to tell the stories behind “Your Song” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” The half-hour of stripped-down arrangements ends with “Empty Garden,” the John Lennon tribute he says he performs only in New York and Las Vegas.

Versace-inspired scenery closes down the massive stage for much of the show but rolls away near the end, revealing the Colosseum’s gigantic video screen and a few stingy camera close-ups of the singer and the band.

(Oddly enough, a restroom run will reveal that the lobby TVs run a full feed that’s like watching a DVD, fully directed with multiple camera angles. So if you’re in the upper balcony and want to see what Elton looks like, make sure to go for a stretch.)

Conceptual video isn’t the main attraction as it was during his “Red Piano” years at Caesars. In a few cases, such as “Philadelphia Freedom,” the new, toned-down visuals make you miss the old ones. But for the most part, the focus is on the right place: the man at the piano.

Speaking of focus, here’s a sign of the times. When he first started letting people onstage for “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” they got up there and danced. Ten years later, they circle in and film him with their phone cameras.

What will they be doing in another 10 years? Sure hope he’s at Caesars so we can find out.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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