Welcome Back, Captain Fantastic

There’s a scene in Mick Jagger’s (stunningly bland) new, made-for-TV documentary, “Being Mick,” in which he’s invited to a benefit at Elton John’s palatial estate outside of London. The two confer in Elton’s garden, cattily criticizing Madonna’s “Drowned World” tour. They agree her show was disappointing. “She should have done more old songs,” Mick says.

That's not a criticism anyone can make about Sir Elton’s John’s “Songs from the West Coast” tour. In New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, John opened his show in front of a sell-out crowd with the 1973 classic, “Funeral for a Friend,” then launched into a two-and-a-half-hour retrospective of 34 years of brilliant pop writing--with a half dozen or so performances of music from the new release.

Aging rock stars traveling down memory lane isn’t always pretty. There’s a reason Madonna opted to perform mostly new material: the show may have been deeply unsatisfying for her audience, but at least she didn’t come off as a pathetic diva milking old hits.

Remarkably, neither did Elton John. Banging away at his grand piano, backed by long-time guitarist Davey Johnstone, the old Captain Fantastic performed with incredible enthusiasm--and piano virtuosity. John convincingly enjoyed playing “Tiny Dancer,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Your Song” and other standards. In most cases, he stuck to the original arrangements. But in some, notably “Benny and the Jets,” he banged out an updated, jazzabilly version that demonstrated how talented a pianist he remains.

The entire experience added up to a sort of ’70s flashback--an age when Elton was huge, a mega-rock star living the high life. His audience, heavily comprised of women in their 40s singing along to every song, was clearly reliving its own past, to which Elton had been the background soundtrack.

Like those women, John is older (and sober) now. He made a number of jokes about his weight (which went over well with this crowd). Wearing pink-and-black spectator shoes and a matching Versace suit, he wasn’t exactly muted. But the fantastic glasses and hat were gone; the new Elton is a sort of well-fed, affluent version of his old self.

This was a startlingly minimalist version of a rock show. There was no set. No light show. No catwalk. Just a bare stage with instruments sitting on risers, John’s Yamaha grand at center stage. The band looked like it was wearing clothing bought at a Salvation Army fire sale. (Johnstone, in particular, could really use a stylist.) The only production effort, aside from the video to “I Want Love,” featuring Robert Downey Jr., was an animation, shown over a few large screens, during “Rocket Man.” The piece was oddly low-tech; it was as if someone had whipped it up on their home computer.

What a relief. This was a rock show from the days when performers stood on stage and performed. Loudly. To pull that off, of course, you’ve got to have music that can carry the day, rather than special effects. Obviously, with a song like “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (dedicated to New York City), that’s not a problem.

But John’s new material stood up just as well. This new album, written with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, is almost shockingly good. In addition to “I Want Love,” already a hit, John performed “Original Sin,” “Ballad of the Boy in Red Shoes” (about AIDS) and “American Triangle” (about Matthew Shepard), among others. This late in their careers, it’s a testament to true talent that John and Taupin could come up with something so strong.

Near the end of his show, John brought Taupin up on stage, feuds of the past behind them. They hugged, and John thanked him for 34 years of collaboration. The moment was nice. In fact, Elton John appears to have aged into a really nice guy. He repeatedly thanked his audience, bowing to the various ends of the massive Garden at the end of every song. He accepted dozens of bouquets of flowers and gifts from fans, signed autographs, shook hands and even had a few chats with the crowd.

Wisely, perhaps, he remained on his piano bench for most of the show. Elton dancing isn’t all that appealing of a picture. But this audience didn’t care. It was home.