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From Joni Mitchell to Metallica




From Joni Mitchell to Metallica

Even on a day when much of America was hoping to see the sun set, there’s still a constant need to hear someone sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” That, among many other things, is what is offered tonight in the PBS broadcast of a special tribute to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, two of the worthiest talents ever to receive the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize. If you’re a fan – and who isn’t?, as they say – the two-hour show will totally overshadow all your other most pressing entertainment needs.

Three words: “Joni Mitchell” and “Metallica.” If this salute never came from the M’s, it would be worth it based on those two highlights alone, neither of which seemed like the most likely Elton interpreter. But there they are, on the same bingo card. These aren’t the very good performances of Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox and the like – or Elton himself, who closes the program with a mini set – but sometimes it’s the novelties that stick with you when masters compete against masters.

In the evening’s most memorable moment, Mitchell covers “I’m Still Standing,” which is as appropriate as it sounds considering her physical recovery in recent years. It’s also much funnier than you expect. Carlile (who assists on vocals along with Lennox) introduces Mitchell’s cover version by saying that “this is a song that has special meaning to her” and that “she got the green light from Elton and Bernie to change some of the lyrics to suits her, which is honestly the most Joni Mitchell thing I’ve ever heard of. From that, you might expect that Mitchell would have rewritten the lyrics to make them more inspiring somehow – because this is one of those is songs that everyone remembers for the uplifting chorus, but no one remembers that there are any kind of swear words. But no; Joni’s rewrite doesn’t change the meaning of the song at all; it just makes those verses sound even more vengeful, in a clear way. When Mitchell gets to the new lines “My heart ain’t broken and my path is clear / You were just a little bumpy detour, baby” (with a pregnant pause before the “… baby” completes the rhyme), the camera cuts to David Furnish LOL-ing, and I was there with him.

But of course is inspiring, because Mitchell is really in the mood and looks like she feels as much like a little kid as she ever will. At the end of the tune, she takes that ubiquitous walking stick of hers and waves it in the air, as a show of strength (or perhaps just to warn whoever wronged her to leave the premises). It’s so much fun, and it sounds great because Blake Mills – a frequent presence in the Joni Jams crowd that went under – provides most of the accompaniment with an electric guitar lead that turns the tune into an upbeat blues. At the end of 2024, this will probably still be one of my favorite covers of the year.

Unless it’s replaced by Metallica’s version of ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’, which doesn’t take a quarter and at least takes a little blood. For better or worse, the all-instrumental opening section isn’t immediately recognizable in Metallica’s transformation, but it certainly is by the time it gets to the main course, at which point you might think: Does it violate the laws of physics? that Metallica plays in a major key? Either way, it works to make Elton’s rockiest song ever sound a little louder. The technical team is judicious with the reaction footage, but there is certainly a lot of jewelry rattling on the balcony of the DAR Revolution Hall in Washington, where some visiting politicians are sitting, and it would be nice to think that some of them were inspired to damage the bathrooms next.

Everything else in these two hours would be slightly more likely to show up on your bingo card for a John/Taupin tribute. After Joni was awarded the Gershwin Prize last year, the Library of Congress quickly turned to Carlile’s other established hero: BFF, and so it’s no surprise, and not the least bit unwelcome, to see her appear repeatedly here. Leaving her old concert cover of “Rocket Man” behind (actually no one does that here), Carlile’s first selection of the evening is “Madman Across the Water,” which is cool enough, all the way to an extended coda in which the singer has nothing to do but merrily stroll back and forth between Sista Strings on one side of the stage and guitarist Davey Johnstone on the other, doing their respective things. (Kudos to the heavy use of the two-woman Sista Strings section in general, a nice, minimalist nod to string arranger Paul Buckmaster’s greater mastery of classical work.)

But the most excellent of Carlile’s two song choices is “Skyline Pigeon,” and not just because it’s undercover and awesome. For this film, context is key, as her portrayal is a section dedicated to the long history of John’s AIDS Foundation, and specifically to the HIV-stricken boy who captured Elton’s and the world’s heart in the 1980s , Ryan White. White’s sister reads an open letter John wrote to his late friend 20 years after his death in 1990, in which he tells how the death of an “innocent” helped change hearts and minds even as it reminded America, in Elton’s words indicate that all victims of AIDS are innocent.” It’s a valuable history lesson squeezed into a tight space, even for those of us who need reminders, and the dollar figure cited for what the AIDS Foundation has raised – $600 million – is its own testament to John’s legacy, aside of the music. John cries through this segment, and for some of the audience it will also be Cry along with Elton night.

Speaking of his AIDS Foundation, John once again hosted his annual Oscar viewing benefit in Beverly Hills this year, and the live entertainer that evening was Jacob Lusk, lead singer of the British group Gabriels… where I’m sure many people had read the invitation at the time . questions: Who? Luckily for those of us who didn’t make it to the fundraiser, the “who” in this special is answered in a very public way with Lusk’s reading of “Bennie and the Jets” – and it’s brilliant.

Not that you’d ever want to go against Elton’s tastemaking instincts, but every protégé has to prove himself, and Lusk really does that here by doing something original with ‘Bennie’. That oldie from the mid-seventies is a great but virtually impossible to cover song, which no one can make sound stranger than the original, and which only suffers from every attempt to rectify it. But Lusk has the voice of an angel – a very loud angel – and the quasi-gospel treatment finally answers the long-simmering question of whether “Bennie” should just be left alone as a cover or not. In fact, his contribution here is just as must-see as those of Mitchell and Metallica.

The other contributions all fall somewhere on the spectrum between useful and spectacular. Charlie Puth is probably one of the few pop stars qualified to recreate Elton’s piano part in “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” even if you’d want an emotionally intense song to be given to someone with a more anguished feeling was given. -sounding voice. Lennox, who has no shortage of vocal sharpness, shows why the world still hungers for every crumb she occasionally throws away in the tributes she rarely appears these days with her wall-flattening ‘Border Song’.

Billy Porter, the show’s host, cruises the aisles with exactly the song you know he’s going to do: “The Bitch Is Back.” (It’s accompanied by a reminder that “in 2024, I don’t want you to be offended by the word ‘bitch.’ The queer community is using it as a love letter.” Were we really concerned about this? Well, it’s PBS, so okay. ) His fringed dress and leggy look are likely a tribute to Tina Turner, who dueted with John on the rocker before they fell out. Maren Morris, who has a nice history of covering Elton, turns on the AC with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Garth Brooks, himself a Gershwin honoree a few years ago, pulls double duty with “Sorry Looks to Be the Hardest Word” and “Daniel,” both reminders that, among all the other things we forget to remember about Garth, he can sing almost anything in the great Anglo-American songbook that comes to mind.

Video tributes roll between songs by the likes of Carole King, who has special knowledge of what happens when the music writer and lyricist aren’t the same person, and Paul McCartney, who says he’s always been a little jealous of the fact that John is a sheet of paper with all the words on it and then spin gold out of it. (He hastens to add that he doesn’t mean that Elton has a less arduous task.) That does touch on the eternal mystery of John and Taupin’s collaboration, and when he talks about it, John always sounds as baffled as anyone else. His ability to take sometimes ponderous words from Taupin and turn them into instant classics still feels a bit uncanny, as he describes it, as if melodically it were a kind of automatic writing. As long as he insists he can’t explain it logically, it’s not up to us to find out.

But it’s up to us to celebrate, and it’s a joy to see these two get their comeuppance as a team, whose respect and appreciation for each other has grown over the past 55 years, the records show. This show is also an implicit tribute to the Elton John Band, performing behind a majority of the singers before backing a salmon-coated Elton himself for the final three songs, ‘Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters’, ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting ‘. and “Your Song.” If we feared we’d seen the last of them as a certain ensemble at Dodger Stadium in November 2022, Johnstone’s appearance in this series as musical director and as guitarist is a nice assurance that revivals of the old gang can and will happen .

Producer Ken Ehrlich, who has enjoyed decades of Grammy fame, has been characteristically smart with the tribute payers’ choices here. But with two awards this year instead of one, he also knows that the best tribute that can be paid is the one that composer and lyricist can pay each other. This is reflected in their mutual testimonies about each other, but it really comes into focus in the closing rendition of ‘Your Song’, in which we are given a view that we have probably never seen before, between these two quintessential long-distance employees: Taupin, leaning on John’s red piano, taking it all in, stoic, appreciative glances are exchanged. It’s unexpectedly moving to see these two on stage, alone together, for the duration of a piece of music. Gracious is certainly not the most difficult word.