Elton John may be the most codependent star in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
Cher survived famously without Sonny. Diana Ross did divinely without the Supremes. Paul Simon succeeded splendidly without Art Garfunkel — though it probably hasn’t been vice versa.
Sir Elton, the composer and singer, would be nowhere without lyricist Bernie Taupin. (“If it wasn’t for him,” the piano man told a Nashville audience this year, “there wouldn’t be any songs.”) For the first 20 years of his career, the star depended on drink, drugs and those outrageous outfits. For nearly the last 20, he’s often relied on Billy Joel as a partner on tour and, in Las Vegas, he’s been helped by a ginormous LED wall showing videos of Pam Anderson pole dancing, among other things.
On Friday at the sold-out Xcel Energy Center, Elton may have been propped up by four female R&B-schooled backup singers, but he leaned on an old friend to help him make it through the night — autopilot.
Too often early on, Elton relied on aggressiveness — both musically and vocally — to carry the show. Don’t confuse volume with emotion, energy with conviction, smiles with sincerity.
For too long, the piano man, 66, didn’t seem emotionally invested in his singing and playing. Oh, he was pounding the piano with vigor and hitting his notes, though his voice has gotten deeper to the point that he’d now be classified as a baritone. (He didn’t even attempt the falsetto on “Crocodile Rock”; he merely let 16,000 fans sing the “la-la-las.”)
The giveaway on Elton’s spirit in concert is his piano passages to close the always explosive “Rocket Man.” On Friday, he did some aimless comping for about one minute — none of the intriguing, involving adventures that have characterized other concert renditions of this song. “Rocket Man” ended with a fizzle.
Or you want another indicator? While people on the main floor stood for the entire concert, fans on the side sat for most of the evening until the rock ’n’ roll flurry of “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” that closed the main set.
That’s not to say that the 2 3/4-hour concert wasn’t entertaining and fun. It was. This performance just wasn’t as spectacular as his solo effort in 1979 at Northrop Auditorium or as emotional as his 1998 Target Center show.
But there were many satisfying moments on Friday, including the Southern-soaked “Levon,” the delicate and deeply crooned “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Elton’s gospelly vocal exchange with backup singer Jean Witherspoon at the end of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and “Sad Songs,” recast as a Rolling Stones-evoking piano honk.
Wearing a rhinestone-decorated navy frock with “Madman Across the Water” spelled out in sparkles on the back, the bathed-in-blue piano man mugged frequently as he hammered the 88s. At the end of almost every song, he bounced to his feet and hammed it up, like a triumphant fighter flexing his biceps. Sometimes he pointed at specific people in the crowd. He even signed a few autographs and shook several hands before his encore.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer prepared the kind of set list that could thrill his fans. He opened with the first side of 1973’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album — all 25 minutes of it. The 27-song set was filled with hits but also some deep album tracks, including “Grey Seal” from “Yellow Brick Road” and “Holiday Inn” from “Madman Across the Water.” He offered “Hey Ahab,” a gospel-rock boogie from his 2010 duo album with Leon Russell, and two stripped-down numbers, “Oceans Away” and “Home Again,” from this year’s “Diving Board,” his first solo album of new music in seven years.
The backup singers — including the robot-like Rose Stone (from Sly & the Family Stone) and her daughter Lisa Stone — added another dimension and texture. But the emotional burden fell on Sir Elton.
He dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to a friend in the front row, Eric Gilseth, who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Gilseth jumped onstage during the last stanza to hug and thank Elton. The sight of the seated superstar embracing the standing man with his right arm and playing the piano with his left was priceless. So, too, was Elton, when exiting the stage at the end of the night, blowing a kiss to a woman wearing a rainbow-colored sweater in a wheelchair.
That’s the kind of emotionalism Elton is capable of — without his codependents. Because sometimes his gift is more than his song.