Elton's human jukebox

Singer plays his biggest hits in Ramat Gan.

elton john peace 311 (photo credit: AP)
elton john peace 311
(photo credit: AP)
With the sinister pomp-and-circumstance opening of "Funeral For A Friend" filling the stadium, Elton John stepped out behind the wings like a sequined-clad queen arriving to greet his loyal subjects at Ramat Gan Stadium Thursday night.
As routine as a mega-superstar pulling into town should have been - and we've been blessed with quite a few, from Paul McCartney and Madonna to Metallica and Leonard Cohen - everyone was aware that something more was hanging on this performance.
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Simply put, Elton hadn't cancelled. Immediately after a revved up second song, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," he spoke for the first time - making reference to his musical brethren who have feared what they don't understand, and wittingly or not, joined the cultural boycott of Israel.
"Shalom, we are so happy to be back here! Ain't nothing gonna stop us from coming, baby," spouted John with a pumped fist in the air. "Musicians spread love and peace, and bring people together. That's what we do. We don't cherry-pick our conscience."
The crowd of 45,000 exploded, and after that John could have performed an hour and a half of show tunes and they wouldn't have cared. But instead, he turned into a human jukebox for two and-a-half hours, generously delving into his deep catalogue of classic pop and rock songs spanning back to his self-titled breakout album in 1969.
John could have gone the Vegas revue route,  crooning his way through the hits with faceless big band backing, as befitting a performer of his age and stature. Instead, he's chosen in this stage of his career to rock out as one of the boys - the piano player and singer in a taut band with minimal frills, anchored by long-time drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone.
Even though they've played these songs thousands of times, the band and its leader still seemed to invest some emotional spirit in the material while still managing to sound just like the records. Only an interesting, elongated coda to "Rocket Man"  and a spunky gospel finish to "Levon" provided any moments of possible off-the-cuff musicianship, even though it was likely just as scripted as the rest of the material. But the band played it by the book so well, that it's difficult to criticize its implementation.
Especially John himself. One thing that's often overlooked amid the hair weaves, flamboyant clothing, and Rush Limbaugh weddings, is that he's an excellent rock & roll pianist, incorporating blues, New Orleans jazz and classical motifs into his pop framework. And despite no longer being able to hit the high notes on tunes like "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Benny and the Jets," John is still in fine form vocally, with his lower register improving with the years.
The set lagged a bit in spots, with sleepy tunes like "I Guess That's Why they Call it the Blues," "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," and "Sacrifice" just not standing up to the best of his and Bernie Taupin's oeuvre.
The song selection played it safe, as if John was afraid that if the crowd heard a song or two they couldn't sing along with, they might walk out or boo. Rather than trotting out some of his more generic hits from the '80s, it would have been a delight to hear a couple obscure album nuggets like "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters" or the title song to "Captain Fantastic" to give the feeling that this just wasn't a greatest hits show. And slightly disappointing was the omission of anything from John's excellent 2001 comeback album Songs from the West Coast, like "I Want Love" or "This Train Don?t Stop There Anymore."
But there's only so much  you can cram into one show, and John made sure that from "Tiny Dancer" to "Crocodile Rock," most of the crowd favorites were included. However, am I the only one who thought that a solo encore version of "Circle of Life," complete with Lion King animation on the giant screens, was just a little too kitschy, even for the king of kitsch?
Thankfully, John rebounded by closing the show with a heartfelt "Your Song," emphasizing the lines, "My gift is my song and this one's for you,"  while smiling out at the crowd. He seemed to realize how much this show meant to them. And he was right.