Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 5, 2003)
Few musical artists can play an entire two and a half hour concert packed solely with hits and still leave out many well-known numbers. Madonna could fill that span and omit some smashes, while Paul McCartney could play for five hours and miss a few biggies. In any case, it’s hard to come up with many who can plow through hit after hit and still skip some.
Elton John belongs in that rarified air, a fact he proved in October 2000. Over two consecutive nights, he staged concerts at Madison Square Garden, and these shows almost totally focused on his hits. For evidence of this, we get One Night Only – The Greatest Hits, a 27-song DVD package that mostly concentrates on Elton’s smashes.
Since Elton played for two nights, the title sounds stupid, but the program nonetheless provides a solid roster of successes. Not surprisingly, the concerts focus on tracks from Elton’s heyday in the Seventies. 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road gets the most attention, as it offers five songs. The program starts with the four numbers that comprised side one of the original LP release: “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, “Candle In the Wind”, “Bennie and the Jets”, and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. Elton later plays “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”.
Otherwise, no single year offers more than two songs. 1970’s Elton John gives us “Your Song”, the oldest track represented here, while 1971 features Madman Across the Water’s “Tiny Dancer”. 1972 enjoys three tunes: “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock” from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player and “Rocket Man” off of Honky Chateau. 1974’s Caribou provides “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” and “The Bitch Is Back”. From 1975, only “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” comes off of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, but that year also offers the single “Philadelphia Freedom”.
1976 shows a similar situation. Only “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” appears from Blue Moves, but we also find the single “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. That ends the Seventies, as we jump to 1980’s 21 at 33 for “Little Jeannie”. “Blue Eyes” comes from 1982’s Jump Up!, while 1983’s Too Low for Zero features two tracks: “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing”. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” originally appeared in 1984 on Breaking Hearts, while “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” showed up on 1987’s Reg Strikes Back. Both “Sacrifice” and “Club at the End of the Street” appeared on 1989’s Sleeping With the Past, while “The One” came from the 1992 album of the same name. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” represents the only number from the megahit soundtrack to 1994’s The Lion King. Lastly, Elton covers the Beatles’ “Come Together”; I tried to find out if this ever showed up on another Elton album but didn’t find any evidence that it did.
That makes “Come Together” one of the few One Night Only tracks that doesn’t actually qualify as an Elton John hit. One could argue against the inclusion of “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” since that number’s really just a well-regarded album track, and even Elton notes that “Club at the End of the Street” didn’t chart very highly.
Nonetheless, Only represents a pretty hit-laden setlist, and it leaves out a few well-known numbers. “Levon”, “Honky Cat” and “Island Girl” could have made the cut, and if Elton wanted to offer a cover tune, he could have included either “Pinball Wizard” or “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”; Elton recorded very popular versions of those tunes in the Seventies. He offers “Come Together” as a tribute to Lennon, but “Lucy” would have worked that way as well.
In any case, Only provides a nice overview of Elton’s career, even if some omissions occur. What albums offer no cuts? Not too many fail to appear. We get nothing from 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, 1975’s Rock of the Westies, 1978’s A Single Man, 1979’s Victim of Love, 1981’s The Fox, 1985’s Ice On Fire, 1986’s Leather Jackets, 1995’s Made in England and 1997’s The Big Picture.
I watched another Elton DVD - Live In Barcelona - just a few days before I screened Only, so I could more directly compare the two performances. Barcelona took place in 1992 and showed the weaker of the two shows. Vocally, Elton sounded about the same for both. During Only, he lacked the lisp that marred his singing in 1992, but he remained somewhat rough and raspy. If I recall correctly, Elton suffered from some vocal problems back in the mid-Eighties, and he never seemed to totally recover from these. Only demonstrated the lack of range he lost over the years, and that seemed particularly evident on numbers like “Bennie and the Jets” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”.
Despite the advanced age of many of the tunes, Elton seems quite energized here. No, he doesn’t approach the hyperactive heights of his Seventies shows, but he comes across as more invigorated than normal. Despite some of his vocal restrictions, Elton offers a nice performance.
To help with some of the vocals, Only includes a small roster of guest stars. In a semi-miscalculation, the show’s only major cameo comes early, as Billy Joel duets with Elton on “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. This sets up expectations for big stars later in the concert, but they never materialize as Only features a mix of lesser lights.
On the positive side, Ronan Keating fits “Your Song” well, and his duet seems like the most natural of the bunch. Actually, Keating sounds a lot like a young Elton here. Mary J. Blige’s take on “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” seems too showy, but at least she adds some spark to an otherwise ordinary song.
It felt like somebody goofed with two of the other duets. Fluffy pop singer Anastacia guests on the rocking “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)”, while rough-voiced Bryan Adams gets the sappy “Sad Songs (Say So Much). Neither offers very good work, though at least Anastacia looks sexy and jumps around a lot; the other guests mostly just stand still, so it’s nice to see some energy on stage.
Though I don’t care for the song, easily the most charming cameo comes during the evening’s final number when Kiki Dee appears for “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. Unlike the other singers, she actually performed with Elton on the original version of the song, so this reunion makes the performance exciting and fun.
Guest star footnote: is there anyone with whom Bryan Adams hasn’t performed. Off the top of my head, I can recall concert cameos with Tina Turner and the Who as well as Elton. I’m sure he’s done more as well. Does Adams just wander the world in search of guest vocal opportunities?
Directed by concert video veteran David Mallet, Only provides an unexceptional but acceptable reproduction of the show. He offers too many crowd shots, unfortunately. These never reach the absurd level seen in Paul McCartney’s Back in the US, but they cause a distraction nonetheless.
Otherwise, Mallet keeps things simple and concise. One element of Live In Barcelona I disliked stemmed from the focus on the backup singers; they emoted relentlessly and really got on my nerves. Mallet spreads the shots around more naturally, so none of the bandmembers dominate the piece. Mallet also resists the temptation to go nuts with quick cutting to “enliven” the show, and he blends the two concerts neatly. You’ll probably only know from which night the material comes if Elton mentions it directly, as he does prior to “Little Jeannie”.
Modern Elton John can’t approach the heights of his Seventies heyday, but Only Night Only offers a reasonably positive glimpse of his work. Elton’s vocals seem somewhat weak, but the band replicates the numbers reasonably well, and the concert comes across like a lively and likable piece.