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Elton John says watching Metallica, Joni Mitchell sing his songs is 'like an acid trip' Print-ready version

by Melissa Ruggieri
USA Today
March 21, 2024

Photo by Shawn Miller

WASHINGTON - The songs of Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin are so ingrained in public consciousness that it's easy to take them for granted.

Sometimes we need a reminder of their endurance, their poignancy, their unique marrying of lyrics and melody that few aside from this pair have created so memorably and for so long.

The partnership that ignited in 1967 was honored in starry fashion Wednesday at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., where John and Taupin were presented with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. They're only the second and third British artists (Paul McCartney was the first in 2010) to receive the award named for legendary American songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin.

A genre-hopping lineup of musical luminaries - from Metallica to Maren Morris, Billy Porter to Brandi Carlile - as well as most of John's phenomenal longtime band took the stage at the 3,700-capacity venue to both rouse and ruminate with the invite-only crowd dotted with politicians and Supreme Court justices.

The annual award is chosen by the Librarian of Congress - currently Carla Hayden - along with consultations from curators at the Library's Music Division, American Folklife Center and National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

On the red carpet before the concert, John, clad in a pastel pink suit and tinted glasses, said the diversity of the lineup equates to the accessibility of his and Taupin's 50-plus-year catalog.

The songs "can be played by anybody and sung by anybody. (Bernie and I) love so much different music; there isn't a genre of music we don't really like. The longevity of our career is because the songs vary. 'Philadelphia Freedom' isn't like 'Burn Down the Mission.' 'Daniel' isn't like 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting.'"

Added Taupin with a smile, "Our palette is full of colors."

That rainbow was well-represented. Exuberant host Porter navigated the stage like a rock star in a black fringe dress for a cheeky rendition of "The Bitch is Back," while a respectful Garth Brooks patted his chest while he wrung the emotion from "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" and the lilting "Daniel."

Some artists, such as Morris, imbued their song choices with subtle stylistic shifts ("I Guess That's Why They Call it The Blues"), while others, such as Charlie Puth ("Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me") offered unabashed reverence.

Here are some additional highlights from the show, which will air April 8 on PBS at 8 p.m. EDT and stream on PBS.org and the PBS app. It will also be available to U.S. Department of Defense locations around the world via the American Forces Network.

Elton John

Seated at a cherry-colored piano sitting center stage, a shoe balancer on his right foot, the maestro of musical genius joked that it felt "like an acid trip" seeing other artists sing his songs. It was also the first time, he said, that he's sat in the audience and listened to his own band.

His assessment?

"They're (expletive) amazing!"

With mainstays Davey Johnstone (guitar), Nigel Olsson (drums) and John Mahon (percussion) anchoring a lineup that also included Kim Bullard (keyboardist since 2009), Mike Inez (a fill-in for bassist Matt Bissonette), Adam Chester (piano/vocals), Ken Stacey and Carmen Carter (backing vocalists) and the awesome SistaStrings on cello and violin, John burrowed into the haunting beauty that is "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" as the stage glowed red.

John turns 77 Monday and has been absent from performing since wrapping his years-long Farwell Yellow Brick Road tour in July. But he's undiminished both in his ability to unspool Taupin's vivid lyrics and unleash his robust boogie piano, as he did on a zippy "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."

Jacob Lusk

An "American Idol" contestant and member of the trio Gabriels, Lusk came into the event as the least-known among a mega star marquee, but left one of the mightiest impressions.

John, ever a proponent of nurturing talent, performed with Lusk at last year's Glastonbury Festival in England and handpicked him to join the Gershwin Prize roster.

"Welcome to the church of Bernie and Elton," a beaming Lusk said before high-stepping across the stage and into a fresh rendition of "Bennie and the Jets." Lusk's voice hit several octaves in all of the right places as he uncorked an infectious performance that was full of joy and personality.

John, who engaged with all of the artists from his seat in front of the stage next to Taupin and husband David Furnish, fervently finger-pointed as he reveled in the call-and-response of "Ben-nie," clearly enjoying his position as a spectator.

Annie Lennox

At last year's Gershwin Prize concert, the Scottish powerhouse offered an emotional wallop as she presented Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now."

This year, she honored John and Taupin with equal intensity.

The gospel flair of "Border Song," which marked John's first chart appearance in the U.S. in 1970, was an ideal match for Lennox's booming voice and unforced dramatic flair.

As she stood in a spotlight, unadorned, Lennox dug into her low register as she sang, "Holy Moses, let us live in peace" and completed her performance by blowing kisses to John and Taupin.

Metallica

While not the first band that pops to mind to pay homage to the John/Taupin songbook, the hard rock quartet maintains profound respect for the honorees.

Before the show, singer/guitarist James Hetfield revealed "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is his favorite among the catalog, but the band opted to whip the audience into a more expected frenzy with "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding."

The epic double punch served as a frequent opener throughout John's touring career, and Metallica turned the volume to 11 as they stripped "Funeral" of its whizzing synths and instead stocked the instrumental with more serrated guitar.

Drummer Lars Ulrich crashed cymbals and thundered behind his banana-yellow kit as "Funeral" segued into "Love Lies Bleeding" and Hetfield stepped up to sing.

Metallica locked into the song as it built to a feverish climax of double bass drums and escalating guitar riffs, a lesson in exhilaration and exhaustion.

Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell

The endearing Carlile is such an enthusiastic music fan that she can always be counted on to not only perform multiple times during an event, but to do so with elegance and passion.

Her first appearance, accompanied by a sweet story about how John and Taupin inspired her songwriting, was a ferocious rendition of "Madman Across the Water." Hard-strumming her acoustic guitar, shaking her head forcefully and jamming with Johnstone, Carlile injected the song with a sinister edge.

Later in the show, John's activism with the Elton John AIDS Foundation and his friendship with Ryan White, the young man who died in 1990 after contracting HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion, was spotlighted.

White's sister, Andrea, read from a poignant letter John penned in remembrance of Ryan, followed by Carlile reappearing with her acoustic guitar to sing the early John/Taupin track, "Skyline Pigeon."

Both somber and beautiful, Carlile's performance brought both John and Furnish to tears.

In another appearance, Carlile introduced her mentor, Mitchell, who stood onstage wearing a tipped maroon beret and supporting herself with a cane.

Mitchell, Carlile explained, asked John and Taupin if she could change some of the lyrics in the song she chose to sing, "which is the most Joni Mitchell thing I've heard," Carlile joked.

That song, "I'm Still Standing," was completely recast as a finger-snapping shuffle with Carlile and Lennox aiding on backup vocals. It was an arrangement that would have made Tony Bennett proud and Mitchell delivered the lyrics with more than a hint of defiance.

She capped the performance with a raised cane and a final declaration of "I'm still standing."

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Added to Library on March 25, 2024. (439)

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