The verdict is in, and Elton John wowed the crowd at Monday night's Essex Fairgrounds performance. I know, because I was lucky enough to be amongst the crowd.
When the opportunity presented itself to attend what had been predetermined the "Concert of the Year," I couldn't turn it down. For someone on a budget like mine, seeing Elton John live was more than a once in a lifetime experience. It was my big night out for Summer, 2008!
My excitement reached new heights when the usher showed me to my 6th row seat — with ecstatic fans on one side, and Free Press reporters on the other. Brent Hallenbeck (music editor for the Freeps) confided that the seats were some of the best he's seen reserved for media over his tenure of covering shows. I thanked my lucky stars. And the cloud-free sky.
With an outdoor show that starts before night fall, there is no drama of dimming lights before a performer takes the stage. Still, as Sir Elton's band calmly walked to their respective instruments, a collective sucking in of breath could be heard in anticipation for the singer himself. With the first appearance of a foot from back stage, the crowd erupted in cheers. And as Elton emerged in full, the cheering continued.
Clad in black shoes with red hearts, black pants with red stripes and a red silk shirt, the performer topped off his outfit with a full tuxedo jacket, bejeweled with an image of himself flying across the back in (what else?) a rocket. He calmly smiled at the crowd before pointing at various sections and mouthing, thank you. The audience continued its hoots and hollers, and tiny bits of boa could be seen floating in the air.
I am not one to get starstruck. But as John sat down at his piano to start the set, I realized that my mouth still remained open from when his walk on stage cued my jaw to drop.
Elton John was a staple of my childhood. Or as Brent Hallenbeck corrected me, he was a staple of a lot of our childhoods. After all, the artist has been around for 39 years now, having made his American debut in 1970. One of the most impressive parts of Monday night's show was Elton John's drummer. Nigel Olsson played with John when he made that debut. Olsson rejoined the touring band in 2000, and is still with John today. And as always, he drums with white gloves on.
This tour was advertised as featuring John's biggest hits, and from the first chords of "Funeral for a Friend" to the closing notes of the encore, "Your Song", he fit them all in the two and half hour set. It was after "The Bitch is Back" that he addressed the crowd for the first time, saying, "Good evening, Vermont! It's only taken me 39 years to get around to coming here, and I'm so glad we made it and it's a beautiful night. Thank God!"
The crowd continued to stand through the first four songs, before some finally took respite in their seats. Most remained standing, however, dancing and singing along in outfits picked out specifically for Elton John. Most common were sparkly sunglasses, boas, and wigs, but some more outrageous outfits could be spotted as well. To the girl in the front row sporting the silver sequined mini dress and dancing for the full two and half hours I just want to say: you are awesome.
Once darkness fell, the big screens on either side of the stage came on, giving those sitting in the grandstand a close up view of Elton John at the piano. Every time the camera zoomed in on John's hands, as his fingers zipped across the keys, I couldn't help but stare in awe. At 61 years of age, and after 40 years of performing, it makes sense that John's voice might wane at times. But his hands have still got it.
Throughout the evening John played "Tiny Dancer", "Levon", "Daniel", "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues", "Honkey Cat", "Sad Songs Say So Much", and many more including my personal favorite, "Bennie and the Jets". It was his fifteen-minute epic version of "Rocket Man", though, that got the loudest applause from the crowd. In fact, with the opening line of "She packed my bags last night pre-flight," I actually witnessed one fan pull another fan's hair in excitement.
Fans who rushed the stage also held up various items looking for autographs. The standard choices (hats and tee-shirts) met the bizarre, as one fan triumphantly pumped his fist after Sir Elton signed his baseball. My favorite moment came when, during "Crocodile Rock", one fan held up a stuffed crocodile to be signed, and behind him, another whipped off his own Croc (shoe) and held it in the air as well.
John included a couple dedications throughout the night, the first for his hit "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road". This, the performer dedicated to the people at Ben & Jerry's, calling them "generous and inventive" for their limited edition flavor, "Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road". The ice cream was sold to raise money for Elton John's AIDS Foundation, in honor of his first performance in Vermont.
The second dedication came with the final song of the singer's encore, "Your Song". Sir Elton addressed the crowd saying, "Thank you so much Vermont, It's been a fantastic night and I love you dearly." He then explained that America is where his career started and that is why he wanted to play all 50 states. As of Monday night, he has. The dedication was an emotional moment both for the performer, who accomplished his goal, and for the crowd, who took the words "this song's for you" very personally.
The excitement in the air was palpable as fans filed out of the grandstand and back to their cars, buzzing with satisfied reactions to the night's show. "Bennie and the Jets" could be heard blasting from another vehicle as I waited in line to exit the Fairgrounds, and people in surrounding cars joined in for one last sing-a-long.
It may have taken Elton John 39 years to make it to Vermont, but the mutual feeling of Monday's night crowd declared the performance worth the wait.
*Photos by Stephen Mease*