Half a century after he released his debut album, Sir Elton Hercules John is having a moment – driven by the success of flamboyant big screen biopic Rocket Man and an imminent ‘farewell’ tour.
And Rocket Man the song was one of 22 numbers featured in this buoyant celebration from GRB Concerts (conductor/orchestrator Richard Balcombe and Liverpool singer/actor Graham Bickley) in collaboration with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
With a back catalogue featuring more than 120 singles and the tracks from around 50 albums to choose from, rather like the Beatles it’s almost impossible to both narrow down the selection into a two-and-a-half hour evening and please all your listeners.
My own favourite, Tiny Dancer, only appeared in about a bar and a half of silken piano (from George King) as part of an overture which mostly hinted at treats to come.
And favourites or not there was plenty to enjoy, both in the choice of numbers and the delivery by the concert’s line-up of singers and the orchestra, compact in size but boasting a beefed-up brass section and busy percussion as well as the addition of guitars and drum kit.
The overture segued in to 80s Elton with I’m Still Standing, before the programme stepped back in to the 70s for Philadelphia Freedom complete with wall of brass, sharp stabs of strings and singer Patrick Smyth rocking it out in front.
Of all the soloists, Smyth’s vocal tone was closest to that of John himself, and he brought it to a number of tracks over the course of the evening including Love Lies Bleeding – part of an extended opening the second half with Funeral For a Friend which allowed the Phil to indulge in a spot of classical prog rock, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me with orchestra swelling sweetly below the vocal, and the full on, brass-driven Grey Seal.
Stuart Matthew Price lent his light, sweet tenor to Tonight – which featured lovely, sinuous piano from King, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word (including a delicate woodwind segment) and Rocket Man.
And Bickley stepped up for a mellow Something in the Way You Look Tonight, the poppy Part-Time Love, Belfast – complete with rippling harp and storytelling strings, Circle of Life, Your Song, and Candle in the Wind which, as anyone familiar with Emily Dickinson’s poetry will recognise, is a classic example of threnody.
Inevitably there were fewer opportunities for Abbie Osmon to take centre stage, but along with doing vital and warmly harmonious vocal backing work she also got the chance to shine in the Aida reboot duet Written in the Stars and playing Kiki Dee (sans dungarees) in Don’t Go Breaking my Heart.
Incidentally, Written in the Stars was one of the few songs of the evening which featured lyrics by someone other than the great Bernie Taupin. And honestly? They set his songwriting genius in somewhat sharp relief.
There’s always a danger in orchestrating pop music that it tips over in to muzak, but apart from a very occasional teeter, Balcombe and the Phil managed to avoid this pop pitfall.
Perhaps Sir Elton should consider taking an orchestra out with him on his farewell tour?
Anyway, back to this concert. And while the final programmed number saw all four singers come together for the anthemic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (the only anthem surely to mention the horny back toad) it wasn’t quite the end.
Those who dashed for trains missed a rocking encore which saw orchestra, singers – and audience – tearing into thumping bonus tracks like Crocodile Rock and Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.