Anticipating Elton John at 1st Mariner Arena

Gig will be pianist's first in Baltimore in more than a decade

March 24, 2011

It's been 40 years since Elton John first performed in Baltimore, and a decade since he performed in the city proper.

On Saturday, he'll return with a show at 1st Mariner Arena, where he'll play some of his greatest hits.

But the show will also find John rejuvenated in ways he hasn't been on previous tours, even with Billy Joel in Washington two years ago.

That's because he'll play selections from his new album, "The Union," where he exhibits the kind of swagger that brought him prominence and a legion of American fans in his first stateside tours in the 1970s.

"The Union," released last year, is a collaboration with pianist Leon Russell, as well as an homage to him. John has said it's meant to revive Russell's mostly forgotten legacy and introduce him to younger generations.

Paying tribute to the older American, seems to have electrified John. He sounds euphoric on "The Union," often singing with the energy and abandon that all the awards, knighthoods and baggage of being Elton John had seemed to sap irrevocably.

Russell and John, along with the latter's longtime writing partner Bernie Taupin, have put together songs heavy on references (see: "Gone to Shiloh"), so that "The Union" sometimes plays like a historical concept album.

But on the whole, the tall tales in "Hey Ahab," "Monkey Suit," "A Dream Come True," all played over the perky beat of John's and Russell's boogie-woogie piano, are upbeat and clever.

The album, which includes vocal cameos by contemporaries like Neil Young and Brian Wilson, was nominated for a Grammy this year, though it lost to award perennial Herbie Hancock.

Several of the album's songs, if John's most recent shows are any indication, will probably get stage time at 1st Marine, and will give him an opportunity to jump start his live set again. It's not that he's phoned it in the past decade; it's that, after the umpteenth performance, even "Bennie and the Jets" can sound stale.

John is in his element in concert anyway. That's where he can don the kind of get-ups that would make Las Vegas showgirls blanch. With the right material to match, he might just sound like he did when he first played in Baltimore in 1970.

Elton John performs Saturday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 West Baltimore St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29-$149. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

Erik Maza

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