NOTE: This post was originally written in April 2019 in honour of Record Store Day. The 2 LP/CD set has been released globally January 24, 2020. In honour of that event I’m resharing this Red Heart Blue Sign piece.
In 1978 Elton John released a solo Lp, A Single Man, it marked a few departures for him musically. It was the first where Bernie Taupin did not have a writing credit on the Lp. He also didn’t record with the band that had accompanied him on his two previous studio albums Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves. Elton toured to support the album, but unlike previous tours, the tour in ’79 was a man and his piano. Elton was accompanied only by percussionist Ray Cooper. The tour that year had only one stop in Canada, the old O’Keefe centre (now the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts) in Toronto. These shows were not unlike shows recorded Elton 20 years later in Madison Square Gardens. These shows were made available solely to Fan Club members (of which I was) on two CDs in 2000 and 2001.
The tour included a historic eight shows in the old USSR, four in Leningrad and four in Moscow. The concerts were one of the first by a western musicians allowed into the country and would open the flood gates for everyone else.
For Record Store Day this year, the BBC recordings of his last concert in Russia in 1979 were released on vinyl as a double Lp. This 2 disc set was my first purchase after buying a new Turntable and it fills me with joy to hear the needle softly set itself down on side one track one with every album I play now.
Disc one Side one opens with Elton solo on the piano with open refrain of “Daniel” and cautiously welcoming applause, as the song plays I find I have tears in my eyes to hear the warmth of vinyl again; it’s a welcoming feeling to my youth. Sticking with older materal Elton seques to his self professed favourite composition, “Skyline Pigeon”. Take me to the pilot leads into Rocket Man a song that turns epic in this live performance.
Flipping to Side two it begins with “Don’t Let the Sun go down on me”, “Goodbye yellow brick road” and “Candle in the wind” all songs the audience well recognizes. It seems as listening to the Lp that the the soviets in attendence are settling in and are not so wary of this pop superstar. Elton’s love of Motown is widely known, the side ends with Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it through the grapevine” but sadly, IMHO, he over extends this taking away from the performance. As I listened to it, I wonder how many in the audince felt as I did – is this almost over?
Over to Disc 2 Side 1 and Elton is joined by percussionist Ray Cooper. Cooper has been playing with Elton since the 1971 Lp Madman across the water. Besides Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson no one has played more with Elton. The second disc opens with a combined “Funeral for a friend/Tonight”, songs that appear on Eltons only two disc studio albums. Touching on 9 of his 11 previous studio Lps in this concert he brings a bit of Captain Fantastic with “Better off dead” before breaking into a full arena sized concert version of Bennie and the Jets with a room full of Russians yelling “BENNIE” on queue.
One last flip to Side 4, with “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” and “Crazy water” from Blue Moves, the audience is clearly in his hands, Elton sets up the end of the show with a a series of song combinations guaranteed to get Russian boots moving. Elton works his magic with “Saturday night’s alright for fight” and “Crocodile Rock” with his “Pinball Wizard” and he was the first to end a western pop concert in the USSR with the Beatles “Get Back” and “Back in the USSR”. Judging the by the reaction to the song you might think he played official state anthem, but while the USSR was still in tact as it was in 1979, it was most certainly the unofficial emotional anthem.
Elton John Live from Moscow is a gift to his fans from a performer who is in the middle of his “farewell yellow brick road” tour. For me it took me back to being 19, Elton John’s Greatest Hits was my first vinyl Lp I purchased and “Sleeping with the Past” in 1989 was his my last before going into full CD mode. Live from Moscow brings me back to being a fan of Elton John and to vinyl. From the warmth and depth of the sound of the recording to the packaging of vinyl. It is a return to good days and good music.
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