Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2003)
When Elton John played behind his then-current album The One in 1992, he should have titled it the “What the Hell’s That Thing On Elton’s Head?” tour. The Elton we knew and loved for the prior 20 years became increasingly follicly challenged over time, and what little hair he possessed turned gray. All of a sudden, Elton appeared in 1992 with big brown moptop. I guess I’ve gotten used to it over the last decade, but I still think it looks kind of weird.
Anyway, the concert portrayed on Elton John: Live In Barcelona comes during the singer’s bushy coming out, as it were, and finds him in Spain not long before the start of the 1992 Olympics there. The One was Elton’s first studio album in three years, but you won’t find too much from it during this show. Of the 21 songs, only three appear on The One. We get the title track along with “Simple Life” and “The Last Song”.
Otherwise, the tunes span Elton’s career. “Your Song” offers the oldest track, as it goes back to 1970’s Elton John, and that year also provides “Burn Down the Mission” from Tumbleweed Connection. 1971 gives us “Tiny Dancer” from Madman Across the Water, while 1972’s Honky Chateau gives us “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”. Elton’s first album of 1973, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, features “Daniel”.
The only Seventies album to feature more than one song in this show, 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road adds “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” as well as “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. 1974’s Caribou provides “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”, while 1975 gives us “Philadelphia Freedom”, which originally appeared as a single. From 1976 comes Blue Moves’ “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, and 1978’s A Single Man closes that productive decade with “Song For Guy”. (For the record, the only standard Elton John albums from the Seventies not represented in this concert are 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. Trivia note: if I recall correctly, Fantastic was the first album to ever debut at number one in the Billboard charts.)
As we move to the Eighties, we find two songs from 1983’s comeback hit, Too Low For Zero: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing”. 1984’s Breaking Hearts includes “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”, though that song will always be “Sasson Says So Much” for those of us old enough to remember the cheesy jeans commercials Elton did at the time. We just to 1988’s Reg Strikes Back to get “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters Part 2”, and 1989’s Sleeping With the Past provides two more tracks: “Blue Avenue” and “Sacrifice”. Finally, Elton covers Queen’s “The Show Must Go On”, which he also played at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert that took place about two months prior to the Barcelona show.
Though Elton performed only three songs from The One, I felt surprised with the moderate emphasis he placed on then-recent material. Including those three numbers, he did six tunes from the past five years and nine from the prior decade. That doesn’t sound like much, I suppose, but given the strength of Elton’s Seventies catalog, I expected he’d almost totally ignore the Eighties for a set of this era. With a few exceptions, it wasn’t a pretty experience for him, and he certainly didn’t produce anywhere near as many solid numbers as he did in the Seventies.
I admire Elton’s choice to go with a relatively high number of songs from the then-recent past, as most artists of his stature wouldn’t do so. For example, look at the 2002 tours conducted by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. For the most part, neither acknowledged the existence of the Nineties. The Stones often played 1994’s “You Got Me Rocking”, but other than the new track “Don’t Stop”, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in their set from anytime after 1981; they did a few tracks from the Eighties and Nineties, but only a handful of times during the 36 shows in the tour’s first leg. As for Macca, he did a few numbers from 2001’s Driving Rain, but he offered nothing at all from the Nineties and only two tracks from the Eighties (“Here Today” and “Coming Up”).
One shouldn’t necessarily regard this as a criticism of the Stones or McCartney. Indeed, both put on some of their best-ever performances in 2002, and that seems more important than nit picking about the setlist. But still, I respect Elton’s choice to remind fans that his recording career didn’t end in 1976.
Too bad so much of the material since that date doesn’t seem very good. Of the post Blue Moves tracks, the two Too Low For Zero numbers probably work best. They remain bouncy and catchy, and when I listen to them, I can remember why they helped rescue Elton from his career drought. “Sad Songs” has some moments too, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in this excessively elongated rendition. Elton adds a very long intro that showcases the talents of his back-up singers, and the whole thing feels showy and pointless; their vocal histrionics would fit better on an episode of It’s Showtime At the Apollo.
The three numbers from The One come across as moderately likable but fairly forgettable. Actually, I was surprised to realize that I recognized all three. I never owned The One and I didn’t recognize the titles of any of the trio, but I clicked into them immediately, so I guess they may not be as forgettable as I thought. “Blue Avenue” and “Sacrifice” really do appear bland and unmemorable, while “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters Part 2” totally trashes the original. The 1988 “sequel” goes on way too long and becomes an interminable and pointless instrumental extravaganza.
Elton tends toward over-done, bombastic production of many of the songs, and that generally harms them. For example, at its heart, “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” offers a tight little rocker, and the version on Barcelona retains enough kick to make it work. However, Elton should reduce the song to its core. Lose the smooth backup singers and synths and make it crank, dude! Bring out the bar band in the track and forget the polish.
Many of the arrangements seem too lush and busy, though this works at least once in the program: during “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. That number always favored excess anyway, and it provides possibly the only example in which the musical bombast and lush back-up singing fits the song. It’s a solid version that cranks along nicely.
Despite these gripes, Barcelona generally provides a good sample of Elton’s career, and the music mostly works well. The band seems more anonymous than I’d like; only guitarist Davey Johnstone remains from John’s longtime band, and the other players sound and look generic. They support the music acceptably well but do no more than that.
At least they don’t actively detract from the experience, whereas the back-up singers become a frequent annoyance. Musically, they appear too smooth and silky for the songs, but they mostly annoy me in a visual sense. Perhaps to compensate for the absence of a front man who can move around the stage, the singers all pose and posture in absurd ways. They make all sorts of ridiculously dramatic gestures to “illustrate” the songs; they reach their nadir during “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, but they irritate on many other occasions as well. The camera frequently focuses on them, which makes their goofy maneuvers even more distracting.
As a visual performer, Elton is much more subdued than during his wild Seventies heyday, but he still manages enough spark to hold our attention. Vocally, he sounds decent but a bit rough. As I recall, he experienced some throat difficulties in the Eighties, and along with the hard living he experienced over the years, that can account for the loss of range and moderate gruffness he shows here.
I’ve not heard Elton live since 1993, so I don’t know if his voice has rebounded since then. I do wonder when he developed the lisp he often displays in Barcelona. It doesn’t always seem pronounced, but at times, it comes across very strongly. Based on this version, he needs to rename the song “I’m Thtill Thtanding”. Many the lisp was always there, but I’ve heard a lot of Elton over the years, and I don’t recall noticing it prior to this era.
Visually, Barcelona provides a reasonably low-key affair that mostly fits the presentation. Director Andy Morahan avoids the tendency to use lots of quick cutting and audience shots to “spice up” the show, but he does leave Elton too frequently. Elton remains the focus most of the time, but the drummer and those irritating back-up singers appear more often than I’d like. Still, the production seems to convey the concert acceptably well, and it doesn’t resort to obnoxious gimmicks to do its job.
One won’t find prime Elton John in Barcelona, but one could also do much worse. The show mixes classic hits with newer tracks and generally balances the two sides nicely. The performance lacks great flair and spark, but it seems competent and largely engaging. This DVD presents the concert reasonably well and provides a nice little package.