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Elton John in Moscow - Still Standing





This post originally appeared at my blog. I thought FJ might find it interesting. 

When I heard the Rocket Man was coming to Russia, I jumped at the chance. With the current political situation, the whole thing seemed rife for drama. In fact, in the days leading up to the show, I was a bit worried about too much drama. And having first heard of him when I was five (over Diana's death, of course), falling in love with his warm, delightful music when I was twelve, and seeing him live in Canada in 2010, I was most definitely a fan. I snapped up a ticket the second they went on sale, and though they were nosebleed seats, I couldn't have been happier about it.

The musicality this year was a huge improvement over 2010. It was in an actual theatre, not the hockey arena from my hometown, so the acoustics were better and the audience was much more - well-behaved? I don't know if that's a cultural thing. I think Russian audiences, in general, are a bit more restrained than in North America. However, they applauded enthusiastically and clearly adored the music. The opening act, two cellists from Croatia, also got a warm reception - well-deserved, of course. Their rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was not to be beat.

Some standout performances included "Rocket Man" (always one of his better numbers, though it wasn't his usual 12-minute production number), "Candle In the Wind" (into which he put his heart and soul, though I suppose he must be sick of the damned thing),  and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (again, one of his usual tour de forces). He also played a new song, "Oceans Away", which is about the First World War and was extraordinarily moving. For the encore, he played "Your Song" and "Crocodile Rock". The latter was what really got the audience up and partying, as he invited them to sing along with the chorus. Even the most proper audience members were dancing by the end. Interestingly, the biggest audience reaction was to "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", a song I would never have ranked among his most popular.

For the first two-thirds of the show, I was pretty sure he was going to be on his best behavior - it seemed like a normal concert. Apart from a few greetings and announcing the names of songs, he didn't talk much at all. He was his usual energetic self (how does a man in his late sixties manage that kind of energy?), dancing on the piano and mugging outrageously.

As the first major openly gay performer in Russia since the new law began, though, I imagine it was too big an opportunity not to pass up. He sent his band off the stage and had the video feed turned off. He faced us, and spoke about his concerns. I think that overall, he handled it very respectfully. He began by speaking of his fondness for Russia, and how he has always felt welcome here - never judged in any way. Then he stated his position very simply. He considers the new laws "inhumane" and "isolating", and expressed his sadness at what was going on. He spoke of the power of music and the harmony that comes from it, noting the thousands of people in the theatre all brought together. Harmony, according to him, is what will make the world better for his children and for Russia's. He then dedicated the concert to Vladislav Tornovoi, a young gay man murdered earlier this year in Volgograd, and finished with a hauntingly beautiful solo rendition of his classic "Nikita".

The audience reaction to this was mixed applause and heckling (more of the former, thankfully), but most of them simply listened. And that, I think, is the best he could have hoped for - listening. I can't speak for what went on in their hearts and minds, but everyone attending that night knew there was a strong chance he would say something, and when it came time, they let him state his case. He, in turn, did so respectfully, praising Russia's acceptance of him over the years and in the end, making it about the music. It was a powerful moment, and there was no doubt he meant every word, but he kept it brief and then continued to the entertainment we all loved. Beautifully handled on his part, and (mostly) respected by his audience. You can find the full text of his speech here.

Later in the show, he spoke about Nelson Mandela, with whom he was friendly, and spoke very sincerely of Mandela's impact and their personal connection. Curiously, the audience reaction to this was rather muted, but I'm not sure how Mandela was seen in Russia. He then launched into "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me", dedicating it to Mandela and bringing down the house. With the enormous enthusiasm and musicality he threw into it, I'd call it the best number of the evening. It was truly fantastic.

When he came on for the encore, he gave a final, very short speech, thanking us for listening to his previous statement and reaffirming his love for Russia. At this point, he even got a little teary. The audience seemed more receptive to this one, since he placed it in such positive terms. Then he played two of his greatest pieces, and we returned to what  the show was all about.

He has an upcoming concert in Kazan, which means at least a few more days in Russia, so I'm a little worried about the possibility of reprisal. However, I am very glad that everything in Moscow went off without a hitch. He is an incredibly talented and entertaining performer, and the musical part of the show was outstanding. When the time came to say something, he said it simply and in a way which sent a message of support rather than of attack. His bravery in coming here and speaking out cannot be understated. He allowed room for a profound statement, both in his words and in his presence, without letting it overwhelm the show itself - a delicate balancing act which he carried off perfectly.

Thank you, Sir Elton, for coming to Russia and giving us the chance to hear you - both through your music and through the power of your words. This Canadian expat found it an extraordinary experience.


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