Empty Garden Elevates Emotion of Million Dollar Piano
After a year since it first opened, Elton's latest Las Vegas foray remains one of the best formats to see Elton in concert. And now, unbelievably, it just got better.
The show's overall setting, production, and setlist mixes many of Elton's best concert attributes and musical moments - the perfect offering of flamboyance, feeling, and audience intimacy, combined with Elton performing with his top-notch band, with just Ray Cooper, and solo. But above all, it's Elton's bold and adventurous setlist for this unique show that sets the Million Dollar Piano apart.
Though it naturally includes the usual bevy of big hits Elton has amassed through the years to appease the casual fan that dominates the Las Vegas tourist crowd, midway through, the Million Dollar Piano derives its power and defines itself by bravely veering deeper into Elton's five-decade career. By prominently featuring lesser-known gems that have deserved more mainstream attention, including the raucous Better Off Dead, the lovingly conflicted ode to New York, Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters, and the dramatic and intense, Indian Sunset, the show simultaneously challenges and enriches both Elton and the audience.
This performer-audience dynamic is now taken to new heights with its most recent addition. Returning to Caesars Palace's stately Colosseum theater for the first time since May, Elton's seemingly slight alteration to the show becomes a major game-changer from the first note. When the show first premiered last fall, Elton included a tender tribute to the recently passed Hollywood legend, tireless AIDS advocate, and dear friend, Elizabeth Taylor. Performing the gentle Blue Eyes, amid a sweeping video of iconic Taylor photos, Elton injected a genuine dose of heart and affection to the show.
However, the show's emotional core is now re-energized by replacing Blue Eyes with one of Elton and Bernie Taupin's best, most personal, and heart-tugging compositions, the longing elegy to John Lennon, Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).
The first single from the 1982 album, Jump Up!, and released less than two years after Lennon's tragic assassination in New York, Empty Garden remains, indisputably, the best musical tribute to Lennon ever written. Though other musical mates and peers of Lennon have offered their own tributes, including Paul McCartney (Here Today), George Harrison (All Those Years Ago) and most recently, Bob Dylan (Roll On, John), none of them can match Taupin's tender lyric and Elton's emotive vocal and melody that all convey the pain of Lennon's loss, the legacy of Lennon's life, and the majesty of Lennon's spirit.
Taupin uses the metaphor of Lennon being a gardener who seeded with the world with his music, his art, his wit, and his hope. Now that he's gone, he finds "the garden" empty and wonders what will happen to it. Taupin's lyric manifests the complex mix of emotions that still swirl around Lennon's death - the confusion, the sadness, the mourning, the anger, the loss - while exalting Lennon's life as a peace-loving visionary who dared to fight for and imagine the best for people and the world.
Though the song received major airplay and became a Top 20 hit in America, through the years it has never been rightly-recognized by the masses. Part of the reason for this is that for the last 30 years, Elton has rarely played the song in concert, because he has stated that, given his great love and friendship for Lennon, it is difficult for him to sing it without getting overly emotional and feeling the hurt.
He occasionally does play the tribute when performing in New York's Madison Square Garden, which is fitting. It was on November 28, 1974, with Elton and his band, that Lennon made good on a promise that if their duet, Whatever Gets You Through The Night, made it to Number One, Lennon would sing it with Elton on stage. The song did hit the top spot, and Lennon did make good on his promise.
Some also have suggested that the "empty garden" Taupin refers to in the song is actually New York's Madison Square Garden, because unknowingly, and sadly, history was made. It was the last live public performance of John Lennon's life.
Thankfully, more than 30 after Lennon's death, it appears Elton has come to terms with the emotion of Lennon's loss and feels he can perform the song on a regular basis. And it's the audience and Elton that both benefit.
As now presented in the Million Dollar Piano show, Empty Garden finally receives the proper presentation, audience acceptance, and recognition it has deserved. It is the celebration of a great artist, a worthy life, a loving friendship, and a great song. Elton introduces the song by listing several people he's been honored to have met and known, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa, Princess Diana, Ryan White, and Elizabeth Taylor.
He then mentions Lennon, and the love and admiration he had for him, and recalls that special night in Madison Square Garden in 1974. The video that accompanies the song in the show begins with what is, unfortunately, the only known film of the event. Shot by an amateur fan in the audience that night - no professional film of the concert exists - the shaking and grainy film shows an exuberant Elton introducing Lennon to an ecstatic crowd, which gave Lennon an almost 10-minute standing ovation that literally made the hall vibrate.
The video then cuts to a shot of a singular white gardenia flower - the type of flower Yoko Ono sent backstage to Lennon and Elton before the show, and that Lennon wore when he appeared on stage. At the time, Lennon and Ono were estranged, and Ono attended the show without Lennon's advance knowledge. Afterward, the two reconciled and ultimately had a son, Sean, less than a year later. Because this concert was the catalyst for their reconciliation, John and Yoko asked Elton to be Sean's godfather.
The song begins with a cold opening, and as Elton and the band perform, photos of Lennon and Yoko, Elton and Lennon, and Elton, Lennon and Bernie Taupin, and the words "Peace" and "Imagine" steadily super-imposed on the white gardenia. It ends with some of the last footage of Lennon, Lennon and Yoko lovingly walking hand-in-hand in Central Park.
It is an elegant, tasteful, subtle yet powerful video that perfectly complements the song. On Saturday, October. 13, Elton and the band performed a highly emotional and charging version of the song. In Elton's voice you could hear and feel the love, respect, and loss, and the entire band fed off of Elton's emotion, playing and singing with fire and commitment. Drummer Nigel Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone, and percussionist Ray Cooper were all on stage with Elton and Lennon that night in 1974, and it was clear this song and Lennon also touched them personally and professionally as they played with heart, soul, and vengeance.
The performance reached such intensity that at its end, the top of Cooper's drum mallet broke off and flew dramatically from the back of the stage and landed near Elton's piano. The audience erupted in a thunderous applause, and an emotionally-spent Elton let out a long and heavy sigh.
Almost immediately, the new inclusion of Empty Garden became the show's memorable "goose-bump" moment and emotional centerpiece, and it elevates the Million Dollar Piano show to a new level. For all Elton John fans - those who have followed him for decades or perhaps just a few years - this is how Empty Garden should be heard, experienced, and appreciated. Finally, after 30 years, this formidable song has been given a presentation and performance that equals its own inherent power, and power of its subject.
On this Saturday night in Las Vegas (less than a week after the anniversary of Lennon's 72nd birthday) Elton John and his band gave a great performance of Empty Garden, and, in fact, did come out to play.
Trust me. Get to Las Vegas to experience for yourself. I know I'm going back. Hey, hey, Johnny.
by James Turano from Chicago, USA