[ Submitted Wednesday 26 January 2011. ]
In 1994 Elton John played about a dozen nights with Ray Cooper at London’s Royal Albert Hall. For two of those nights, I was there and of all the different Elton performances I have seen before and since, those shows remain my personal highlights.
On Friday, some 16+ years after those shows, Elton returns with Ray to play one night only at London’s Royal Opera House. I have my ticket, and I can’t wait.
I know why I like this kind of performance. I think it was Sting who said that the quality of Elton’s music is evident when you strip it down to its bare elements, as he did with his cover of Come Down in Time on the Two Rooms album. For the first half of the show, the entire audience is focused on one individual and his piano, and the musicality is fantastic. You don’t feel the need for the band; you don’t look for the big guitar riffs or layered vocals. These are the songs in their purest form, not too dissimilar to the way they would have first been written.
These shows also allow for extended intos and outros; Levon’s long ending, the intro to Take Me To The Pilot where most people don’t know what song it is yet – for me, this is why I love attending a live show, because it allows the artist to be free from the constraints of the four-minute single or the 60-minute album. I’m not necessarily going to listen to a 12-minute rendition of Rocket Man over and over again, but at a concert, when you’re in the moment, it’s magic.
And now let me proclaim the greatness of Ray Cooper.
I remember, in ’94, arriving and seeing a stage that is 80% percussion and 20% piano – tympani, snare drums, congas, vibraphone, cymbals, and of course the massive gong at the back. I started playing piano before I knew of Elton John. I started playing percussion *because* of Ray Cooper.
And so the audience settles in and enjoys immensely the first half of the show, where the percussion is seemingly a silent backdrop to the Elton and his piano. And then, during the long intro to Funeral For a Friend, a shadowy figure appears amongst the percussion. Ray takes centre stage as the song crescendos and for a few moments it feels like Elton John is the sideshow. Ray is both delightfully manic and professionally restrained. Just about anyone can play a tambourine, but there are few people who you would want to *watch* playing a tambourine.
Ray Cooper is genius; the perfect, quirky augment to Elton’s piano. And the caliber and energy of the evening is raised once Ray takes the stage.
If I could add yet another reason what makes these shows great – the setlist is unique to all other Elton shows. Obscure, tender songs not appropriate for the big band are on the list. Rare performances of classics that big fans want to hear – where a casual fan might disappointed at the lack of hits and no backing band, this is a show for the true fan, like a love letter that Elton and Ray seem to send about every 10 years or so.
It may seem a bit strange to write a pre-concert review, but the best part of an anticipated event is the anticipation itself. And I must admit that I suspect this will be the last time I will ever see these two men perform together. Notwithstanding their age, I normally live in Canada and I’m lucky enough to be in England this year, as I also was 17 years ago. These shows are rare enough, nevermind the chance that it might come to Vancouver.
But I’m not complaining. Three opportunities across nearly 20 years to watch this performance – what a bonus.