Back when the name Elton John was synonymous with Top-40 success, most critics argued that it was not the singer who mattered but the songs -- that for all his shameless showmanship and peacock plumage, Elton's strengths as a tunesmith far outpaced his abilities as a performer.
Maybe so, but that certainly wasn't the case at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday night. If anything, the opposite was true, for from the lush grandeur of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to the Stones-style savagery of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," it was the musicianship, not the song selection, that ultimately stole the show.
Credit for some of that belonged with Elton's eight-piece backing band, a synth-heavy combo (including long-time guitarist Davey Johnstone and Baltimore-born keyboardist Guy Babylon) capable of summoning up anything from a lean-and-mean rock-and-roll roar to the sumptuous swell of a symphony orchestra. With their help, Elton was able to recapture all the original drama of "Funeral for a Friend," or flesh out "Philadelphia Freedom" with a reasonable simulacrum of the studio arrangement.
But it wasn't just the backing band. Indeed, what truly put this concert over the top was the star himself, whose performance was nothing short of stunning. His voice may have lost some of his range over the years (no falsetto for him, thanks), but it still holds most of its power, as Elton made clear by powering his way through "I Don't Wanna Go On with You Like That" and "The Bitch Is Back." It wasn't just a show of force, either; he barely raised his voice above a murmur during "The Last Song," yet it managed nonetheless to be one of the evening's most moving moments.
Strong as his singing was, though, it paled in comparison to his playing. In the midst of what he described as "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Parts I & II," Elton took off with a two-fisted piano solo (or, rather, synth solo, since his piano sounds came courtesy of samplers hooked up to a Roland keyboard) that led into a round-robin of solos, raising the song to another plane entirely.
But that was nothing compared to the way he transformed "Sad Songs (Say So Much)." It started out as a rambling, rambunctious piano solo, with Elton teasing the crowd with a taste of "Benny & the Jets" before settling into a gospel groove.
Then each of his three back-up singers was given a chance to show just how much soul they could say with the words "sad songs" -- which, in the case of Natalie Jackson, turned out to be quite a lot. And just when it seemed he'd pushed the exercise as far as it could go, in jumped the rest of the band for a full-tilt, rock-and-roll rendition of the song.
Excessive? Maybe. Exciting? Absolutely. Consider it proof that some stars really do improve with age.