Paul Heinz

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Filtering by Tag: Elton John

20 Greatest Keyboard Intros

If you’re a music fan and haven’t already heard of Rick Beato, I highly recommend you visit his YouTube channel and poke around a little, or – more likely – so much so that you jeopardize your job and marriage.  Music is a rabbit hole that’s easy to fall into, and Beato makes it all the more enjoyable by relating interesting aspects of music without dumbing things down and without condescension.  Particularly enjoyable is his “What Makes This Song Great”series in which he dissects classic rock songs, isolating tracks and playing along with amazing virtuosity, while revealing what makes the song stand out.

Rick recently made a video of the “20 Greatest Keyboard Intros Ever,” and since I’m a keyboard guy, before watching the video I quickly made my own list, inspired mostly by song intros that I learned (or tried to learn) starting back when I was around twelve years old to – most recently – intros I learned for bands I play in now.  Only three of the songs Beato covered made my list, but I kicked myself for forgetting to include Rush’s Signals and Genesis’s Dancing in the Moonlit Night, both of which I learned back in the early 80s.

Without further ado, here are my Top 20 keyboard Intros that I recall learning over the years:

1)     Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
2)     Foreplay – Boston
3)     Angry Young Man – Billy Joel

These overlap with Beato’s list, all essential inclusions, and although I thought I learned them all when I was a teenager, even performing “Foreplay” in the 1984 Brookfield Central Battle of the Bands, it wasn’t until I reached my 40s that I actually learned how to play these intros correctly.  All are great fun, highly satisfying intros that still mess me up from time to time.  The latter is a bitch to play unless you’re on a grand piano – I’ve found keyboards don’t have the action required for the rapid repeated notes.  Then again, maybe it’s just my playing.

4)     Another Man’s Woman – Supertramp

I could fill my Top 20 list with nothing but Supertramp songs (“From Now On,” “Take the Long Way Home,” etc.), but if I limit it to two, this has to be the other inclusion.  Another wonderful Rick Davies intro.

5)     Levon – Elton John

Buying the Elton John Greatest Hits album in the winter of 1979-1980, followed shortly thereafter by an accompanying piano book, was monumental for me, opening up a whole new world of piano playing that went beyond Michael Aaron lesson books.  I could easily pick twenty Elton John intros for this essay (“Skyline Pigeon,” “Idol,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” etc.), but “Levon” is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

6)     Nobody Home – Pink Floyd

That same winter of 1979-1980, Pink Floyd’s The Wall made its debut, and – prior to me playing by ear more frequently – this was another piano book that inspired me.  This intro isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the melancholy song up so well.  Very tasty.

7)     Fooling Yourself – Styx

For a young keyboardist, this Styx song was highly satisfying, as it was easy to reproduce the original part note for note and even get the synth patch pretty close (often not such an easy task on a four-octave Korg Delta keyboard).  Nothing fancy here, but effective.

8)     Fire in the Hole – Steely Dan
9)     Aja – Steely Dan

My brother challenged me to learn “Fire in the Hole,” and I got it kinda sorta down before moving onto “Aja.”  Today, I could learn these songs with a bit of hard work, but I remember struggling mightily just trying to figure out the opening chord to “Aja.”  I didn’t even know what a major seventh chord was at the time, so I was at a distinct disadvantage!  I remember showing my piano teacher Fred Tesch what I had written out on manuscript paper, and he immediately wrote out a bunch of chords that I needed to master, which subsequently made learning songs a helluva lot easier. 

10)  Trilogy – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
11)  Awaken – Yes

These songs provided a different sort of challenge.  Instead of blues and jazz-based chords, these intros were more classically-influenced, and once the patterns were deciphered, they weren’t too difficult to learn.  The fast runs of “Awaken” are merely suspended chords and pretty easy to play.  But again, they sound really tasty.

12)  Trampled Under Foot – Led Zeppelin

Perhaps an odd one to include, as it’s a whopping two measures long, but in the days when learning a song meant placing down the needle on a record, lifting it, plunking out a few notes on a keyboard, placing the needle back down on the record (but too far to the right, so the fade out of “Houses of the Holy” was still audible), listening, lifting, playing, dropping, listening, lifting, playing, etc., learning even a two-measure intro wasn’t so easy!  Also, not understanding pentatonic and blues scales made it a lot more challenging. 

13)  Jungle Land – Bruce Springsteen

Roy Bittan’s handywork was a lovely work of art to reproduce, not only the intro here but the entire song.  Monumental.

14)  Abacab – Genesis

My high school band took on this song and did a pretty damn good job of it!  Once again, when I relearned this song about five years ago, I realized that my ears hadn’t picked up on a few things back in mid-80s.  YouTube set me straight as it always seems to do.

15)  Target – Joe Jackson
16)  Be My Number Two – Joe Jackson

The former’s Latin-based piano part is probably a joke to those who know the ins and outs of this style of music, but for my young ears in 1982, I didn’t understand what was happening here at all.  It wasn’t until the late 80s that I finally wrote out the parts to figure out the syncopation.  I never did master Latin patterns and rhythms the way I’d like, but I got this Joe Jackson part down pretty well.  “Be My Number Two” was more my speed, and I love hearing what Joe’s done to the middle section lately when he plays live, modulating every two measures or so before resolving back to the original key.

17)  The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

I can’t tell you how exciting this song was for a piano player in 1986.  In a decade awash with synth sounds, this was an honest-to-goodness piano track, and playable too!  The solo later in the song required more finesse, but even that was doable.  Bruce put piano back on the map.

18)  Locomotive Breath – Jethro Tull

This is another one I kinda sorta learned until recently, when YouTube came to the rescue.  Slowing things down at half-speed sure makes the faster runs a lot easier to dissect!  I just played this intro last month at a gig and had a lot of fun doing it.

19)   The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Genesis

This gets my vote for the best keyboard intro ever.  In typical Tony Banks fashion, the chord progression here is insanely odd – something I’d never come up with in a million years.  It’s also – like “Angry Young Man” – hard to play (for me, anyhow) without a grand piano, and even then I’ll still mess up the final run.  I learned this intro for a proposed Genesis tribute band that never came to fruition, but it was so much fun to learn.

20)   Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

There’s more to this intro than meets the eye, as after the initial memorably eight bars the piano delves into some interesting voicings that aren’t so easy to hear initially.  This intro captures the mood of the song perfectly.

So there you are – my Top 20 Keyboard Intros.  Oddly absent are any songs by Ben Folds, especially “Philosophy” and “Landed,” but only because I haven’t actually learned those songs.  Why?  I don’t know.  Ben Folds was a breath of fresh air when the debut album came out in 1995, as important to me in my late 20s and early 30s as Elton John was to me in my teens, but I still need to learn the tunes.

Some other honorable mentions:

1)     Sweet Dreams – The Eurythmics
2)     1000 Miles – Vanessa Carlton (it once again put piano back on the map in the 2000s.)
3)     Take on Me – Uh Huh
4)     Waiting for a Girl Like You – Foreigner (read about how Thomas Dolby came up with this intro – amazing!)
5)     Lady Madonna – The Beatles
6)     Don’t Do Me Like That – Tom Petty (the piano is sparse and simple, and the organ is perfect)
7)     Jump – Van Halen (of course)
8)     Atlantic – Keane (man, I love this eerie opening)
9)     The Great Gig in the Sky – Pink Floyd
10) Vienna - Billy Joel
11) Head over Heels - Tears for Fears

Lot of great stuff to choose from!  If you’ve got any others I should have mentioned, send them my way.

Rocketman Review

Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived.  Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole.  Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.

It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song.  While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century.   I’m all in.

But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film.  We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts.   By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative.  Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.

More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film.  Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due.  The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies.  In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat.  It should have been electric.  Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves.  I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?”  We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.

And why on earth is the band nameless?   Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential.  There are no scenes showing their camaraderie.  No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France.  No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance.  Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.

I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago.  Look, you can play with facts in films.  I get it.  Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential?  You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene.  But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release?  If you’re going for fantasy, go all in.  If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can. 

The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene.  Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse.  He also sings the material, which is impressive.  I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly.  And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about the film does.

20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Elton John's Long-Ass Tour

It’s a pretty ballsy move for a 70-year-old to announce a three-year tour. Will Elton John hang in there long enough to reach the finish line of his farewell tour in 2021? And for a guy who’s calling it a day because he needs “to dedicate more time to raising” his children, isn’t he sort of blowing off the next three years in that department? I’ll refrain from judging further and bank on him to at least make it to 2019, as I laid down significant cash to see him next February, by far the biggest lead-time I've ever allowed for a concert. I haven’t really been a fan of his music since the mid-80s, and I’m attending the concert mostly because Elton John was an essential component to my musical upbringing, by far the most influential artist in my formative years. (Also, he’s performing twenty minutes from my house.) The soundtrack of my youth includes much of his early output, and I fondly recall purchasing his first greatest hits collection at the local K-Mart during a snowstorm in the winter of 1980, soon followed by a piano book that inspired my piano playing for the next several years.

But generally, Elton lost me after 1984’s Breaking Hearts, the follow-up to his surprise comeback a year earlier and the last album that featured his falsetto voice, nailing it on songs like “Burning Buildings” and the title track, and balancing the ballads nicely with gritty songs like “Restless” and “Who Wears These Shoes?” After this release, he sailed off a cliff into adult contemporary schlock, still able to churn out a beautiful melody and occasionally compose a gem – the song “Believe” from Made in England is a standout – but generally wading in the calm, safe waters of Disney and VH1. I stayed away and didn’t purchase another album of his until just recently, when I added Ice on Fire and Leather Jackets just to round out my vinyl collection, but I say it with authority: both of those albums blow.

I saw Elton on that tour of 1984. The French hornist from my high school band drove me and my buddies Kurt and Mike to East Troy, Wisconsin, where Elton performed at Alpine Valley Music Theatre, opening with “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” before flash-forwarding to his current releases. A beautiful woman in an evening dress stood in front of us, and during the song “Blue Eyes” she gushed with excitement, strolled all the way to the front of the aisle and tossed a bouquet of roses onto the stage. Later, when Elton picked up the bouquet, she started weeping. He didn’t have quite the same effect on me, but I liked the show, though the benefit of hindsight and live recordings from that time show that it wasn’t Elton at his best. He was aided tremendously by the return of his classic band of Nigel Olsson, Davey Johnstone and Dee Murray, but the addition of a synth player Fred Mandell, who layered cheesy string to just about every other song, was a detriment, and Elton yielded a bad attitude, announcing at one point that they would play songs from Too Low For Zero, and that they might as well “get them over with.”  Nonetheless, it was Elton at the end of his purest voice, and I’m glad to have seen him before he had to change keys and employ numerous backup singers to handle the high notes of his 70s recordings. 

Since then, I’ve been tempted to see him numerous times, but something kept telling me to let him go and not witness his decline. I was ready to pull the trigger three years ago here in Chicago, but car trouble kept me from following through. Alas, he opened up with “Funeral for a Friend,” and my brother who attended the show said that song alone was worth the price of admission.

So now I’m in.  Or…I’m in a year from now.  Here’s hoping the piano player can hang in there for at least another.  And here’s hoping that this almost-fifty piano player can too. You never know.

Ben Folds in Los Angeles

When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.

At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.

Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.

Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.

Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.

The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar.  A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.

Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved