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March 27, 2011

Review: Elton John at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore

elton john at 1st mariner arenaNick Madigan reviews Elton John's show at 1st Mariner Arena Saturday, John's first in Baltimore in more than a decade. Leon Russell also made an appearance.

A photo gallery of the show is here

When Elton John launched into "Funeral for a Friend" at the start of his concert in Baltimore on Saturday night, it was easy to assume that he was honoring the departed screen star Elizabeth Taylor, with whom John had long shared a friendship and the mission of promulgating the fight against AIDS.

But three songs later, John made his intentions clear, dedicating the concert to the late Guy Babylon, a Baltimore native who had been John's keyboard player for a decade -- they had played more than 1,300 gigs together -- when he died of a heart attack in 2009.

"He was a huge Orioles and Ravens fan," John told the sold-out hall at the 1st Mariner Arena, drawing a thunderous response, and said that although Babylon lived in California, his heart had always remained in Baltimore.

"Guy, wherever you are -- this show is for you," John said, touching the first notes of "Levon," one of his most evocative peans of biography.

For years one of the more flamboyant performers in rock, John, who turned 64 on Friday, has mellowed only his outfits.

Attired in his now trademark coattails, neatly buttoned around his plump frame, he remains as energetic as ever, plowing boisterously through a musical canon spanning four decades, songs like "Madman Across the Water," "Tiny Dancer," "Candle in the Wind,” “Your Song” and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" -- all a trigger to rattling memories in a crowd populated largely by the gray-haired.

elton john at 1st mariner arenaAt 1st Mariner, John jumped to his feet from the piano at the conclusion of almost every song, jabbing his finger at the audience, exhorting them to even greater enthusiasm.

This is a man who, not surprisingly, covets applause. But at one point, as he introduced his band - including guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him since the beginning - John spoke of the privilege of a lifetime of singing songs and getting paid for it, and sounded grateful for the chances he's had.

It was a revealing note of modesty in a performer known for outré showmanship.

It was also clear, though, that time has taken its toll. While his voice has lost none of its volume or vigor, John pitches it lower, most high notes having surrendered to the vagaries of age, smoking and high living. Perhaps in an effort to compensate, John’s delivery is augmented -- excessively, in my view -- by sometimes prodigious amounts of echo and reverb, so that songs that sound tender and soulful on his albums sound forced and even harsh from the stage.

But if John -- who recently adopted a baby -- was showing signs of longevity, his guest of honor for the evening appeared positively centenarian. Leon Russell, who was inducted on March 14 into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and who will turn 69 next month, shuffled onto the stage with the aid of a cane, his face obscured by a voluminous white beard and sunglasses, his equally white hair cascading down his back from under a white, wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

Stiffly taking his seat at a second grand piano, Russell loosened up only in the tips of his fingers, deftly tinkering the keyboard as he and John delivered a handful of songs from "The Union," the album they released together last fall.

elton john at 1st mariner arenaAnd yet Russell's willingness to go out on the road and plug the album is a testament to his own fortitude, considering he underwent brain surgery shortly before recording "The Union" and has been in frail health since.

His voice, vaguely reminiscent of Willie Nelson's, was clear and strong, and recalled the heyday of his career as a session man and performer in the 1970s, when he played with everyone from George Harrison to Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.

At first glance, his pairing with Elton John might have seemed a mismatch, given Russell’s abhorrence for histrionics and glittery showbiz, but John made clear his connection to him by saying he had “idolized” Russell and his talent decades ago, when he sometimes opened concerts for the older player. “He’s my hero, my friend,” John told the crowd.

Together, the pair pounded the pianos and wailed, and if members of the audience were not as enthused over the unfamiliar new songs, they at least encouraged the musicians to kick out the jams.

Unintentionally or not, one of their songs together, "Never Too Old," might have summed up the ethos of the evening -- two veterans, fighting on despite the advancing years and drawing cheers as they did.

"You're never too old," John said when the song was over. "And you're never too young."

(Photos: Elton John at 1st Mariner Arena (Colby Ware/Special to the Sun)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 12:38 PM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Concert reviews


Nice review! The concert was truly excellent. Great to have Elton back in Baltimore after more than a decade. And Elton's words about keyboardist Guy Babylon were incredibly touching. And very nice that EJ made mention of Guy's notable contribution to EJ's career. Also, it was a delight to hear "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," a hit that he often will choose not to pull out, thanks to "the high bits," as he put it a few years ago.

The problem with throwing an Elton John concert is that he could never play all of his hits in one show. As it was, he pounded the piano for almost 3 hours. Unfortunately for me, he only chose to play songs from his early years (1970-1974) and those from 2010 with Leon Russell. (with the exception of "Sad Songs say so much" and "I Guess that's why they call it the Blues". He has written so many other amazing songs during his forty-plus year career, including broadway shows and animated musicals. I have been a huge fan of Elton's since the early 1970's and was very familiar with Elton and Leon's latest CD, "The Union". Unfortunately, while these songs were being played many people chose to go to the restroom or buy more beer, thus missing "the best part of the day". Anyway, I wish these people would have stayed home, and given the better seats to those of us who are true hard-core elton fans.

Response to the post above . . . True hard-core Elton fans are just that . . . true hard-core "ELTON" fans, not Leon Russell fans. Offense was taken to your post.

Nick, Kudos for a good and fair review. Just one nit, the "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" is an intro combo Elton has used from time to time for a long time. I was also glad that he pulled out Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and even Madman Across the Water.

This was my first ever elton john concert, i was shocked at how close his albums are to his live show. He is a truly gifted performer. I was stunned to see Leon russell come onto stage and play , great shock. Finally I could not believe tht Elton actually took the time to sign autographs for all of the fans in the front row, I have been to many concerts and that was a first for me. Its nice to see a musician who understands that if it was not for their fans they would not be where they are. Hope I get to see another show.

this concert was really not that good, way to many specials effects such as echoing and strobe lights every second, and his piano solos were literally over 10 minutes long. I left the concert early

Actually, I thought his piano solos were the best part of the show - energetic, enthusiastic and intricate - just beautiful. Overall an unbelievably wonderful performance. Amazing!!

Disappointing. Have seen Elton several times, this by far the most boring. Greatest Hits is minsomer when 1 hour spent hearing Lean Russell duo. During this time, people in floor and front row seats had people sitting on their hands wondering why Elton did not perform as many of his songs he could fit in. Enjoy piano solos, as long as it is not expense from doing other great songs.

DVR alert: Look for Elton John on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) on Thursday, March 31, 2011 to plug his hosting SNL on Saturday, April 2nd.

This was a really amazing show - especially loved the newer material. Elton, like many performers these days doesn't sit content to become a nostalgic act - he's still making good music and it shows.

My son, now 18 went with me, and we typically only see classic metal shows together, but I'm a long time fan of Elton's and I wanted my son to see him because let's face it - he's a legend.

As far as this review, I'm not sure how familiar the author is with voice and the progression of age: The voice does in fact drop in range - this is not from hard living etc (although that can be a factor) but overall it's age. Personally, I thought he sang incredibly well and his playing is jaw-dropping. Excellent show, and very glad we went.

@Jeff -- In 1986, Elton had to have surgery on his throat because his vocal cords were damaged from years of singing and drug use. When he emerged from surgery, his voice was noticeably lower, and has been ever since.

This was by far the worst of the 10+ Elton concerts I've seen. The acoustics were horribly loud to compensate for Elton's reduced range. Terribly disappointed and we too joined the people who left early.

@Sam- Yessir as I said, I'm sure that is not un-factored - however basic human physiology denotes that the human voice deepens with age. The man is over 60 right? For 60+ he sounds pretty amazing. No one's voice stays the same forever. These days a lot of older artists play 1/2 step down in tuning.

I'm just sayin', we can't expect that he would sound exactly the same after all these years - I certainly don't go to shows to hear a dead on version of the record, although I'm sure some do.

@Jeff -- Totally. I think it's incredibly boring when bands like the Eagles reproduce their albums perfectly at every show. And you're right about most singers' voices changing. Except Steven Tyler, who is probably a cyborg.

Oh, goshdarnit Sam, Please come back! You can have Erik's hours! M-F 8-3, we just ask for the occasional night out review.'re probably right there. hey is there any larger version of the photos in the story here? I'd love to print them out for my son, who was really taken by Elton's music - which is saying a lot for a kid who's been raised by an old metal guitarist. ;)

@anon -- I'm the entertainment editor now. Are you not entertained?

@Jeff -- You can buy larger versions through the photo gallery:,0,1653760.photogallery

Not sure how much they cost, but I'll bet you could probably get digital-only, high-res versions. If not, let me know.

This was my second time seeing Elton live. I have to say that I particularly enjoyed the segment with Leon Russell. To me it was like another show within the show. I know that artists with both a new album and an extensive catalogue of hits have to weigh the options of playing new material and losing some of the crowd or just going with mostly recognizable songs. My perspective is that if you don't play new material, what's the point of releasing a new album in the first place? I salute him for continuing to make significant music and having the backbone to play it live.

I have seen Elton John in concert 10 times now, and long elaborate piano solos have always been a mainstay of his live shows. I remember many years ago a version of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" that seemed to go on longer than...saturday night.

I thought the concert was great, however what disappointed me was the CROWD at the end of the show! Elton John came on and did his first encore with "Your Song." Everyone knows Elton is a diva and won't do just one encore. After that encore, the house lights stayed completely dark. The show was not over. If it was over, the lights would come on immediately to signal everyone. Also, if you purchased the tour book, you would see that "Daniel" and "i'm Still Standing" were still left to be played, as he did in other venues.

However, after the first encore, the fans all left en masse and after several minutes the roadies and crew signaled to turn the lights on so we all missed the second encore of the final two songs.

while he cannot hit the high notes anymore like he used to night after night, city after city, it still was a great performance and I always enjoy seeing him live!

Hi, Nick!! It was great walking to the arena with you. :)

This was my 1st Elton show. As a Black female in her late 30's, I thought the show was great. I was surprised that the show was 3 hours. Most of the concerts of younger artists are hardly 2 hours. I do wish that he had done some Lion King or Aida songs. Overall, I was happy and can check this off on my bucket list.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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