Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Elton John at Dodger Stadium: A Show for the Aged

On this day, 35 years ago, Captain Fantastic – accompanied by his trusty sidekick the Brown Dirt Cowboy – made their way from the end of the world to my town.

My town at that time was Los Angeles and the site was Dodger Stadium. It was a sunny Southern California Sunday afternoon – like so many other beautiful late fall days on the West Coast, yet so different from any other day I had ever experienced. That’s because I was about to embark on my virgin concert experience by attending the closing day of Elton John’s two-day, sold-out stint at Dodger Stadium.

Unless a person actually lived through that time, it’s nearly impossible to imagine just how popular John was in 1975. He completely dominated the airwaves at the time, dropping a couple No. 1 albums per year and littering the landscape with hit after popular hit. His concerts were reported to be phenomenons unto themselves, with John donning outrageous costumes and delivering the songs in wildly entertaining fashion.

Not at all unlike the scene where Frances McDormand's character anxiously drops off her young, sheltered teenage son at his first rock concert in the movie "Almost Famous," I remember my own mom nervously depositing my brother, a friend and I off in front of Dodger Stadium, making sure we had sufficient change to call her from a pay phone after the concert for a ride home.

I still recall the thrill of walking into the stadium and getting my first look at the stage -- located beyond the grass where Jimmy Wynn tracked down fly balls that year for the Dodgers in center field. A large majority of the field itself was already swarmed with fans, even though the show was several hours from starting. Some passed the time by bopping beach balls around while a few of the more adventurous went soaring into the air, sent skyward by groups of people standing in circles holding a taut blanket.

It was all so ... "groovy" -- especially for a wide-eyed 15-year-old experiencing his first concert.

The opening acts on this day were Emmylou Harris, which I still consider an odd choice, and the James Gang, which featured future Eagle Joe Walsh. I don’t remember much about either set, except wishing they would end quickly so Elton could finally take the stage.

Perhaps foreshadowing a future in journalism and concert reviewing, I took along a small notebook and a pencil to document Elton's setlist. Looking at those somewhat faded pages today, I can’t help but laugh at my crude handwriting, which didn’t improve much over the years, and my spelling, which did. I am still chagrined at penning the misspelled “Philedelphia Freedom.”

Elton opened the show with a solo rendition of “Your Song,” and his piano moved slowly forward from the back left of the stage to the front as he played. He followed that up with another solo effort, the ballad “I Need You to Turn To.”

He was then joined by his band, which he had recently revamped. Immediately after becoming the first artist to ever have an album (“Captain Fantastic ... ” ) debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, John jettisoned the only two musicians who had been with him from the start of his touring career -- drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. He replaced them, respectively, with Roger Pope and Kenny Passarelli, and bulked up with an additional guitarist, Caleb Quaye, and keyboardist James Newton Howard (who would go on to make his mark as a well-known composer in film). They joined holdovers Davey Johnstone (guitars) and Ray Cooper (percussion).

John and band took an intermission after a 10-song opening set. When John returned, he was wearing a sequined Dodgers uniform and took some awkward swings with a bat while standing on top of his piano. The band launched into “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and the second, hit-heavy, set was off and roaring.

I remember special appearances by tennis star Billie Jean King and John’s partner in rhyme, lyricist Bernie Taupin. There was the song that should have been a major hit except it was never released, “Harmony,” and an odd little ditty I never much cared for but can never get out of my head once I hear it, “Dixie Lily.” I remember “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” being perfectly timed with the oncoming dusk outside the stadium. John went on to play 31 songs in a three-hour-plus performance. The show spoiled me for years – being a concert novice, I figured every band must play for a similar length. I was shocked when my second concert headliner – the Electric Light Orchestra – barely played beyond 90 minutes.

Looking back at the setlist from that day, I recognize a tactic of John’s I have noted in subsequent shows of his that I’ve attended over the years. He tends to string two or three songs from the same album together in concert – a move which I find extremely effective because certain of his albums always take me to the very specific portions of my life when they were popular. It always makes for a fun journey to take an extended musical pass through those fond memories instead of experiencing the highlights of his career as if on random play.

Of course, that observation was lost on me at the time, I was just a wide-eyed teen attending his first concert. Over the years, I’ve gone on to interview band members Johnstone and Olsson, and see John in concert on eight occasions – great times all, but somehow none can quite compare with that afternoon at Dodger Stadium when hand in hand went music and the rhyme, the Captain and the Kid, stepping in the ring.

Thirty-five years later, and I still wonder if the sixty eight summer festival wall flowers are thinning.

Elton John
Dodger Stadium
Oct. 26, 1975
(Click on highlighted links for Dodger Stadium video of those songs.)

First set
Your Song
I Need You to Turn To
Border Song
Take Me to the Pilot
Dan Dare
Country Comfort
Rocket Man
Empty Sky

Second set
Funeral For a Friend
Love Lies Bleeding

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Bennie and the Jets
Dixie Lily
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Bitter Fingers
Someone Saved My Life Tonight

The Bitch is Back
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
Meal Ticket
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
I Saw Her Standing There
Island Girl
Philadelphia Freedom
We All Fall in Love Sometimes

Tell Me When the Whistle Blows
Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Pinball Wizard

Setlist notes: My early Elton John album collection was not as complete at the time of this show as it is today. I originally guessed at the third song, "Burn Down the Mission" and didn't know the fourth song. I was thrilled recently to connect with a high school friend through Facebook who also wrote down a setlist that day and was able to finally confirm that the third and fourth songs were "Border Song" and "Take Me to the Pilot." (Obviously, I did not own Elton's eponymous debut U.S. album at that time, as both those songs are on there.)