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
Levon
Rocket Man
Hercules
Empty Sky

Second set
Funeral For a Friend
Love Lies Bleeding

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Bennie and the Jets
Harmony
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
Curtains

Encore
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.)

13 comments:

  1. Man, I read your post and it was almost if I had written it myself!!! Alot of parallels, you and I. I too was fifteen and this was my first concert ever. I too wrote down each song and still have my original concert stub, and I attended the October 26th show. Till this day it is still the best concert I have ever been to!! I did take my mom and dads ol' 8mm video camera (no sound) and have some video from afar. Rough, crude and shot from a distance, it still captures the pre concert festivities like giant beachballs bouncing around, people being tossed in the air using a blanket or quilt, people juggling. And of course some of elton and the band. Not the best but hey, my own personal souvenier I guess. If you can contact me at smcgrew@aol.com, I'll send you a copy of it. Thanks for reliving the moment. In the past seven years, I've met two people that were at that show as well. Always fun to talk about.

    Take care,
    Steve

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  2. I was there too, don't remember which day. The concept that he was an actual person, after experiencing him only as a voice emanating from a record, was surreal!

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  3. I too was there. 13 my parents left me outside at 3ish with a sleeping a 10 ticket and 20 bucks in my pocket. Rested not slept till light, got in line and off we went. I lost my mind that day. 13 and so free. Then the songs kept coming like being in my parent car listenin to the radio instead he was standing right there on the stage. Bigger than life in that sparkling Dodger Uniform.....I will never forget...My name is Kim and so nice to see you here!!

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  4. You should do a follow up on whatever happened to the band members. Caleb Quaye is a minister, Roger Pope the drummer is still in England somewhere. What about Ray Cooper? I know Johnstone still plays with Elton.....

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  5. I am Brazilian, I'm 48 years old and am a fan of Elton John since 1976. I was now looking for photos of Elton net and found his notes of the set list from Dodger Stadium and now read your entire story and my emotion was great because for me this is a dream without words ... I went to the Elton John concert in Brazil in 1995 and 2009, I have not had the privilege of spending unforgettable and fantastic experience for you and your friends who reported the comments. Love Elton John, I was happy to find your page. I have a Blog ELTON JOHN FOREVER!! and I'm also on facebook group page and with ELTON JOHN FOREVER!!

    Congratulations!

    Eliane de Carvalho

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  6. I was eighteen when I went to the same concert. I was a casual fan of Elton John but went because his shows were supposed to be special. I, too, was spoiled for life and became a huge EJ fan. Not just the length, but the showmanship was phenomenal. I have never gone to a concert since that was as electrifying. I am attending the 12/13 concert in Bangkok and while I don't expect him to dance out on the side of the stage, I am expecting something special. Btw, my Thai wife has NO idea who Elton John is and she is in for a treat.

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  7. I was 15, lived in Big Bear, and went on our Amazing Elton-Dodger Journey (the Saturday show) with stars in my eyes, leaving our house at 4 am with my 16-yr-old brother driving and 4 other friends. It was easily the most formative entertainment experience in my life.

    I love the memory of being there, and not just watching, but BEING a part of something really really big. We didn't 'come down' from that experience for weeks.

    So fortunate to take these memories along my entire life. Thank you for blogging about this and rekindling much of it.

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  8. I was NOT there (born in '71 and I'm french) but GREAT review. Thanks for sharing...

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  9. Saw Elton at the Hollywood bowl...Quarter flash opened...Elton was lying on top of his piano as the piano slowly rolled out to Funeral for a friend....Just amazing.

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  10. WoW. I was there too!

    I had a live in baby sitter who lived with us to care for my infant sister while my mom worked, and she bought me a ticket to this concert for my 12th birthday.

    I can remember that day like it was yesterday. My first concert, and many other firsts too. There were three of use who went, my babysitter, the next door neighbors cousin (they had become friends) and me. We sat on the field level half way between first base and the right field wall.

    I of course didn't want to sit in the seats when I could go down on the field (I was a huge baseball fan/player) and roam around. That day was particularly warm and to my surprise I found some teenage girls/women didn't necessarily feel like being warm and were topless. Having never actually seen a bare breast this was a surprise, albeit for a 12 y/o a nice surprise.

    I'll admit I didn't quite know what to make of the crowd. Appropriate for the times there were quite a few people who were smoking dope (Marijuana) on the field, I didn't see this in the seats. Never having smelled weed I was curious and asked some guy standing in a concession line what that smell was? After laughing his ass off he explained to me what it was, but it really didn't register because I didn't know anything about drugs and stuff like that. The damn concession ran out of soda and at that time they didn't sell water. The water fountain had a line that was hundreds of people deep so I decided to make my way back out to the field.

    When they announced Elton would be taking the stage soon I migrated towards the center field wall about 50' from the warning track dead center to the stage. Standing there a small group of twenty somethings struck up a conversation with me. One of the girlfriends suggested her boyfriend should lift me on his shoulders during the concert to get some good pictures. He though that was a good idea and asked me if I'd be willing to take some pictures. I agreed, and he showed me how to work their camera.

    After he got done I asked him if they had any water explaining the concession stand situation. His girlfriend said they didn't that they ran out earlier that afternoon, but that I could finish her beer if I wanted it.

    Keep in mind I had been down on the field with tens of thousands of other people all afternoon and it was hot. I was dying of thirst, heck I was probably on my way to be dehydrated. I had never had beer before, ever, and when she handed it to me I drank half a cup without stopping. This got the group all riled up and before I know it there was a group of people cheering me on. I don't think it affected me much but it sure quenched my thirst. Maybe that explains my penchant for a good beer.

    Anyway, Elton came on stage and the crowed went bazerk. It was one of the most memorable moments in my life, right up there with my marriage and the birth of my two children. Elton performed and I watched the entire first set atop the shoulders of this guy about 200' from Elton and his Piano.

    That concert was absolutely the pinnacle of the dozens of concerts I had the pleasure of attending.

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  11. I was there, Sunday, 15 years old and it was also my first concert with my friend Connie and her then BF Gene who drove us there in his fabulous muscle car. Absolute freedom, the first of many concerts I went to...but such an amazing day. It's great to see others who were there too!

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  12. I was at the Sunday show. It wasn't my first concert, but it was my first big outdoor show. Your description of the show is right on. The timing (and the performance itself) of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. Something else that still stays with me from that night was the entire crowd shouting "Saturday, Saturday, Saturday" during the chorus of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting". I'm convinced they could hear us clear to the airport.

    Also, if you took that photo in the post of the stadiium, it looks like you weren't far from where my friends and I were sitting.

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  13. I was there - on that Sunday too. It was my first concert and I was 15 as well. I pushed myself to the front and sat on some guy I had just met shoulders. Elton John saw me and shook his head, as if saying to himself "these kids". I was euphoric!

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