Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 29, 2014)
Once upon a time, artists avoided “going Vegas”, but that seems to have changed in recent years. Now pop musicians play residencies in Las Vegas that go on for months or years. Celine Dion started this recent wave back in 2003 and now artists as young as Britney Spears have followed the same path.
Elton John hopped onto this concept back in 2004 with his Red Piano show. That one continued to run through 2009 and also played elsewhere across 2007-09. (Even during his Vegas residency, John toured nearly incessantly but not usually with the Red Piano concert, which never played in the US outside of Nevada.)
Apparently John retired The Red Piano in 2009 but that didn’t mark the end of his Vegas days, as he returned in 2011 with a new show called The Million Dollar Piano. That one opened in September 2011 and presumably will resume at some point, though as I write in June 2014, no dates appear on the schedule.
As one might expect, the setlist covers songs across John’s career, though with an emphasis on his 1970s heyday. 1969’s Elton John brings us “Your Song”, and 1971’s Madman Across the Water delivers “Levon”, “Tiny Dancer” and “Indian Sunset”.
From there we hit 1972’s Honky Chateau via “Rocket Man” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”; the same year’s Don’t Shoot Me… contributes “Crocodile Rock”. 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road offers “Bennie and the Jets”, “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” and the title track.
1974’s Caribou tosses out “The Bitch Is Back” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”, while 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy gives us “Better Off Dead”. That same year’s single “Philadelphia Freedom” also appears, and that finishes the 1970s. From 1982’s Jump Up, we get “Blue Eyes”, and 1983’s Too Low For Zero contributes “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing”. Finally, “The Circle of Life” comes from 1994’s Lion King soundtrack.
If you go to see a “regular” John concert, you’ll find a setlist with most of those same songs, so don’t expect many rarities. Also don’t expect a show much different than the usual tour stop. While the Million Dollar Piano set-up seems a bit more elaborate than John’s standard stage, it doesn’t do a lot to differ in terms of visuals or presentation.
Going into Piano, I expected something more theatrical than this. I thought the show would have dancers or acrobats or fire-breathing chimps or whatever, but nothing like that appears. Although we see more complex video presentations than normal – mainly via the fancy keyboard that gives the show its title – everything else focuses on Elton and the music.
Which is fine, as John remains a good live performer. However, it means that Piano fails to do much to separate itself from the usual Elton tour stop, and that surprises me. With the advantage of a dedicated venue, I would expect something more complicated to take advantage of the situation. That doesn’t occur, so the average fan will find it difficult to separate Piano from pretty much any other modern-day John concert.
No one will mistake modern-day Elton to 1970s Elton in terms of his vocals; he lost much of his upper range years ago and it won’t return. Still, for 21st century Elton, we get better than average singing here. If you don’t like his modern voice, the show won’t change your mind, but I think he sounds quite good given that caveat.
Elton’s band has been with him for years, and they embellish the songs well. I don’t think there’s a lot of fire or freshness in the musicians, so they don’t bring new life to old songs, but they perform them in a more than competent manner.
Director Chris Gero manages to reproduce the concert in a similarly positive way. At the start, I feared that Piano would suffer from excessive cutting, as “The Bitch Is Back” seems a bit ADHD.
The pace stabilizes after that, though, and offers appropriate movement and editing. Gero doesn’t attempt anything “clever” like various visuals gimmicks, so we get a clear, accurate depiction of the show.
All of this probably makes me sound somewhat unenthusiastic about Million Dollar Piano, and that’s the case; I simply don’t find anything here to make the Blu-ray seem like anything especially different than other Elton John products on the market. That said, it’s a quality release and it offers a good version of an enjoyable show.