Was somewhat alarmed to realize this morning that it was exactly 25 years ago tonight that my friend Tom and I attended one of the finest concerts I’ve ever witnessed, Elton John at Starlight Theater. Good moogly-woogly, where has the last quarter century gone? Oh well, I have very fond memories of that night, so I might as well share them…
Starlight is an 8,000-seat outdoor theater located in Kansas City’s Swope Park. Built in 1950, Starlight had been mostly used for summer musicals that appealed to the Geritol Generation featuring the likes of Julie Andrews, Juliet Prowse and Jim Nabors (who once swallowed a moth while singing onstage there, according to urban legend). Rock concerts were a rarity at Starlight, although we did see Paul Revere & The Raiders there in the Summer of ’71 when I was a wee lad of seven, and Starlight was undergoing a resurgence of sorts in the early ‘80s when new owners decided to stage fewer musicals and more concerts. I think Heart was the first Rock band to play there under the new regime in 1981 as sort of an "acid test", and it went well enough that a whole slew of Rock shows were scheduled there, including four during the first week of July, 1982. Tom and I caught the Charlie Daniels Band on a hot Saturday afternoon, and Asia played there on the 4th (we passed), then that "cat named Hercules" came in for two nights on the 6th and 7th.
Sir Elton was undergoing his own little resurgence at the time after spending about five years in the musical wilderness following his mid-‘70s heyday when he could do little or no wrong. He had just released his second album on his new label, Geffen Records, the very underrated Jump Up, and more importantly, he righted his own wrong by reuniting with his classic band lineup of drummer Nigel Olsson, bassist Dee Murray and guitarist Davey Johnstone. Still, this was my first Elton John concert, and given the dearth of truly decent material from EJ, as well as his lack of enthusiasm for performing at times during the prior five years, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from him. I needn’t have worried…
Tuesday night turned out to be surprisingly gorgeous for early July in K.C., and it was a most welcome change for me as I recovered from the sunburn I got at the C.D.B. show on Saturday. Quarterflash (of "Harden Your Heart" fame) was the opening act, and this was our second time with them, as they played a free concert the previous Thanksgiving Eve at the Lyric Theater in K.C. Too bad that band never went anywhere, because they weren’t too shabby live in concert. Then Elton hit the stage just before dark, opening with "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding", and for the next two hours, he rocked the house with a nice mix of his classics, some new stuff and a few surprises along the way. Of the new stuff, the high point was the poignant "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)"—easily the best of all the John Lennon tribute songs—and another new one called "Dear John" (not about Lennon) got a pretty good reaction, as did "Chloe" from his 1981 album The Fox.
One of the things I love most about Elton John is how he’s not afraid to pick out obscure tracks from his earlier albums—some of which he’d rarely (if ever) played live before—and dust them off and give them a go in concert instead of just playing the same tired old set list every tour. On this night, Elton’s "B-stuff" sounded every bit as good as his "A-stuff"—songs like "Better Off Dead" from Captain Fantastic, "All The Young Girls Love Alice" from Yellow Brick Road, "Teacher I Need You" from Don’t Shoot Me, "Ticking" from Caribou and a song that really grew on me after this show, "Where To Now, St. Peter?" from Tumbleweed Connection.
And oh yeah, the big hits sounded pretty sweet too. "The Bitch Is Back", "Pinball Wizard" and "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting" and "Bennie & The Jets" never sounded better, and the band was very tight throughout—damn, it was great having these guys back together again! The highlight of the night may well have been a very trippy extended version of "Rocket Man" which featured some appropriately spacey guitar work from Johnstone. Elton closed the show with "Crocodile Rock" followed by a medley of old Rock ‘N’ Roll favorites ("Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On"/"I Saw Her Standing There"/"Twist And Shout"), and it was just an awesome fucking show. Out of the over 100 concerts I’ve attended since 1979, this one certainly ranks in my top two or three.
One reason why my memory of this show is so utterly sharp is because we had the good fortune of getting to hear Elton in concert all over again the next night, as the July 7th show was broadcast live on a few hundred radio stations nationally, and locally on the old KY-102. Tom and I both had tape rolling, and between the two of us, we were able to piece together the entire concert on cassette, so it’s like having a souvenir of the show we attended, since the set lists were identical both nights, and I still listen to it often—it’s far better than any official live album Elton’s ever put out, with the possible exception of the expanded double-CD release of 1976’s Here And There.
There was some funny stuff in that second night’s show, like after a song when Elton says, "Thank you, Kansas!" and after the applause dies down a bit, you can clearly hear some guy who was none too pleased with the omission of "City" scream out, "YOU’RE IN MISSOURI!!" Elton forgets a lyric in the middle of "Ticking", and his band introductions are rather humorous too, like when he refers to Davey Johnstone as "a guy who’s rejoined us after a while playing with other biggies—like Meat Loaf…" EJ also was very classy to give props to the venue itself by telling the nation, "If anybody ever wants to see a beautiful theater, come to Kansas City and see the Starlight Theater—it’s beautiful!" About the only downside to the recording is ever-pompous radio personality George Taylor Morris talking over the proceedings during the encores. Still, one of these days I’m going to transfer this sucker onto CDs.
Here’s the complete set list, btw:
Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
All The Young Girls Love Alice
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Better Off Dead
Ball And Chain
Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
The Bitch Is Back
Where To Now, St. Peter?
Where Have All The Good Times Gone?
Bennie & The Jets
Teacher I Need You
Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Medley: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On/I Saw Her Standing There/Twist and Shout