On September 16, Sir Elton John made a rare, free-of-charge "Elton John Goes Back to School" appearance at the University of Southern California's intimate Bovard Auditorium, accompanied by the USC Thornton School of Music's orchestra, to celebrate the upcoming release of The Diving Board, his first solo album in seven years. The students in attendance, all a third or less Elton's age, were thrilled to be in the presence of such a musical master (and they were, impressively, all familiar with his vintage material)…but really, people of all ages could learn a lot from Elton, judging by the wisdom he shared when speaking between songs.
The evening, introduced by legendary Diving Board producer T Bone Burnett (who shared his fond memories of watching Elton's historical Troubadour showcase 43 years ago), was divided into three sections: a performance of classic hits, a performance of Diving Board selections, and a Q&A conducted by Grammy Foundation vice-president Scott Goldman. And the musical moments were certainly amazing. With an orchestra conducted by his former keyboardist James Newton Howard, Elton ran through his classic catalog with positively Springsteenian tenacity, starting with "Sixty Years On" from his self-titled 1970 debut album straight through to a fiery solo piano version of "Rocket Man" more than two whirlwind hours later. But Elton was just as amazing — and just plain cool — when he spoke to the audience, digging into the conversation with the same enthusiasm he displayed when hopping atop his piano during "Bennie and the Jets."
Dressed in a Vegas-worthy sparkly suit and hot pink socks, Elton showed an incredible zest for life — and for music — that belied his 66 years (and was in total contrast to his reputation as some grumpy, Madonna-baiting curmudgeon). What was particularly notable was his admiration and appreciation for youth. While many of his aging rock 'n' roll peers moan about the state of current music and pine nostalgically for "the good ol' days," Elton raved about rising artists like New Zealand it-girl Lorde, garage-rocker Hanni El Khatib, and British electronic duo Disclosure, saying their music gave him "much more pleasure than listening to an old Muddy Waters track."
Elton, who has collaborated with Kanye West and Eminem in the past, also sang the praises of hip-hop, saying, "You can't dismiss any genre. If you don't like rap, fair enough, but you don't know until you've seen Eminem or Kanye in the studio. These guys are like freeform jazz musicians! Dismiss them at your peril."
Speaking about desert rockers Queens of the Stone Age, who invited Elton to play piano on their most recent album, …Like Clockwork, he said: "People say, 'Oh, they're just a guitar band.' Bulls---, they're just a 'guitar band.' They're brilliant! I learned so much from those guys."
Speaking about The Diving Board, Elton stressed the importance of evolution and chance-taking in his own career. "It's a record by a 66-year-old man. It's not a record by the 26-year-old guy who made 'Rocket Man.' It's full of mature songs and songs that are reflective. It's who I am now, not who I was then. There's no 'Philadelphia Freedom' on it. I've changed.
"If you want to coast and just play 'Bennie and the Jets' for the rest of your life, just f--- off, as far as in concerned! Coasting is dangerous…I'm not Lou Reed, I'm not Neil Young, I'm not Bob Dylan, but I'm Elton, so I can still push things."
While Elton gently acknowledged that this heyday as a singles artist has probably passed, he once again celebrated the idea of youth. "I don't get played on the radio anymore, and quite rightly so, because it's other people's turn," he said, later declaring, "There is an energy you have in the audience called youth that can change the world. I used to have it. I have energy now, but it's not like the energy you have in your twenties, when you're fearless and you just go for broke…You people have the world at your feet. You can change the world. And you will change the world."
However, towards the end of the night, when Elton played his old '80s pop hit "I'm Still Standing," the lyrics had perhaps never rung more true.
Elton's full USC setlist was:
Sixty Years On
The Greatest Discovery
Oscar Wilde Gets Out
I Can't Stay Alone Tonight
The New Fever Waltz
The Bitch is Back
Bennie and the Jets
Goodbye Yellow Brick road
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
I'm Still Standing