Live: Elton John's 'The Million Dollar Piano' at Caesars Palace
To fully appreciate the spectacle that is Elton John’s new show “The Million Dollar Piano” at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, you have pay attention to the details, such as the jumbo piano-roll swirls that flank the piano player and change colors throughout the night, shifting from gold to ruby to emerald to sapphire. Not that you can miss them. They’re the size of stretch SUVs.
Or the pair of cocker spaniel bas-reliefs tucked at the base of another set piece, representing John’s two canine companions, which sit beneath a handful of cupids leaning on a ledge and peering down amid bountiful grapevines. Or the tennis-court-sized screen behind John and his five-piece core band, which displays dozens of animated backdrops to accompany the songs, moving from glowing sunsets and spinning candelabras to carnival scenes to live-action clips of John throughout the years in many ridiculous outfits.
To fully absorb the spectacle of "The Million Dollar Piano" -- which began a three-year run on Wednesday night -- you have to submit to the cheese, basically, give yourself over to the gaudy Vegasness of it all and dive into the many classic piano rock songs in John and collaborator Bernie Taupin’s repertoire, songs built for the Top 10 but perfectly adaptable, like John himself, to the sparkle of Caesars Palace.
The little (OK, enormous) accents pepper the stage of the casino’s Colosseum theater, the same one that held John’s previous Vegas show, “The Red Piano,” in 2008. “The Million Dollar Piano,” designed by the minds behind sets for Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Martin Scorsese's Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light," and Depeche Mode, among others, features a presumably more expensive instrument and a number of the same cuts. But that’s to be expected; fans in Vegas didn’t pay to see Elton John deliver a song cycle in progress or work out some challenging new ideas. They paid to see him play “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting.”
And that’s what they got, give or take: They got the hits with a side of cheese with a few surprise dips into lesser-known corners of his catalog.
What is this “Million Dollar Piano”? It’s your basic Yamaha grand fancified with 68 LED screens that run the horizontal length of the piano and display images and patterns to compliment the digital screen behind John and band. He’s named it Blossom. Truth be told, it seems more like a tarted-up $100,000 piano; for a million bucks, it should get at least a little airborne.
Instead, Blossom sat there onstage and only took flight when the piano player let loose. His band -- which features longtime drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone, Bob Birch on bass, John Mahon on percussion, Kim Bullard on keyboards, along with a pair of Croatian cellists, four background vocalists and a special appearance by percussionist Ray Cooper -– offered structurally sound support.
Sporting a black tuxedo jacket that looked like it had just weathered a gold-glitter downpour, along with black pants and shiny gold shoes, John has proven that he can let loose, something that’s difficult for piano players, tethered as they are to their hulking instrument. The pianist used to combat this by going wild like Jerry Lee Lewis, but no more. He is, after all, 64, and has a hard time with leg-kicks. There were no peacock feathers, and his windshield-wiper spectacles remained in storage. But the singer still exuded sparkle.
It must be difficult sometimes, though, to be enshrined, to be knighted, to be so fully recognized that the sense of danger, the sense that something important is as stake, disappears behind expectations of the fans. John hasn’t had a hit song in years, though he’s still unafraid to push in less commercial directions, as evidenced by last year’s solid collaboration with Leon Russell, “The Union.” John performed one song from that record, “Hey Ahab,” and though it was no doubt unfamiliar to many in attendance, the crowd gave it an ovation, as they did other more obscure tracks that John performed, including “Indian Sunset” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.”
Equally difficult for an artist with such an illustrious career is to impart a sense of emotion and urgency to songs performed thousands of times before –- or for listeners to hear ubiquitous classics like “Bennie and the Jets” or “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” with fresh ears. It’s part of the deal, though: You make your hits and then spend the rest of your life as an artist both celebrating and trying to shake them.
That was more difficult for John to overcome, but he combated it with touching interludes, the most poignant of which was a rendition of “Blue Eyes,” which he dedicated to longtime friend, the late Elizabeth Taylor. The piano player performed one song while a triptych of clips from his career was projected on the screen, racing through photos, symbols and objects signifying his life, from bowler-hats to multi-colored Doc Martens to a shot of the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where he got his big break, to an ocean of candles suggesting “Candle in the Wind.” The overview culminated with John standing alongside his longtime companion David Furnish perched atop a wedding cake before gliding to an image of a newborn sitting in the cup of a flower, signifying the arrival of the couple’s son Zachary.
As these images floated above the piano player, the audience applauded, content that one of their favorite singers had not only offered the hits, but also, like the best of those songs, spun a well-crafted story.
[For the record, 1:08 p.m. Sept. 29: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Martin Scorsese as Martin Scorcese. Also, the director's Rolling Stones documentary "Shine a Light" was wrongly identified as "Shine a Little Light."]
-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Elton John performs during the first night of his new show, "The Million Dollar Piano," at Caesars Palace Wednesday in Las Vegas. Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images
Bottom photo: Elton John's "The Million Dollar Piano" set at Caesars Palace. Credit: Brian Jones / Las Vegas News Bureau / Brian Jones