(Pictured: Elton John gets airborne, October 25, 1975.)
I’ve written here before about Elton John’s best year ever—from the release of his Greatest Hits album and bringing John Lennon back to the stage at the end of 1974 to playing the Pinball Wizard in the Tommy movie to a pair of #1-debuting albums at a time when nobody had ever done it. The summer of ’75 also featured the fabled Midsummer Music show in London, at which Elton and his new band played all of the new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
That’s not even a whole year. That’s six months.
It’s hard to fathom the pressure Elton was under during the summer of 1975. After making Captain Fantastic, he fired his longtime bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who had been with him since he was living in his mother’s house. On June 21, the Midsummer Music show was his new band’s first live gig, and in Elton’s words to the crowd at the end of the show, “We were shit scared.” Back in the States a week later, Elton appeared onstage with the Doobie Brothers in Oakland. One night in July, as the band finished Rock of the Westies at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, he came on with the Rolling Stones at their show in Fort Collins, and, as he admitted in his autobiography, he overstayed his welcome onstage thanks to loads of cocaine.
Elton’s brief West of the Rockies Tour opened in San Diego on September 29, 1975. That show, at the San Diego Sports Arena, has been extensively bootlegged, and it recently turned up at the fabulous ROIO. On that night, the band played for nearly 3 1/2 hours (although the show would get shorter as the month-long tour went on). Elton opened with “Your Song,” and the setlist had all the classics Elton fans of ’75 would have expected. He played several cuts from Captain Fantastic and two from Rock of the Westies, including “Island Girl,” his new single, which Elton said from the stage had been released just that day. He played some deep cuts: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and “Empty Sky,” the title song from his 1969 album, which had gotten its first American release earlier in 1975. The bootleg closes with “Pinball Wizard,” although some shows on the tour ended with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” (I have a bootleg of the October 14 Portland show, and it ends with “Pinball Wizard” too.)
It is not unusual for a band on the road to require a few dates to warm up, and at this show, the band sometimes comes off awkward and lumbering. Elton is strong and clear but he sometimes struggles to hit high notes, and he occasionally launches into a painful-sounding falsetto. But it’s by no means a bad show: the Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies songs are reinvented minus the Cheez Whiz slathered on them in the studio, and Elton alone at the piano, as he was at the beginning of the show, playing some of his earliest songs, is always worth the price of admission.
The bootleg contains a lot of Elton’s stage banter. At one point, a fan who sent him a gift is thanked by name and seat number: “She got my hat size wrong but I’m going to wear it anyway,” he says. He’s almost obsequious sometimes, as if he were begging the audience to like him, as if he were not already the most popular rock star on Earth.
The West of the Rockies tour consisted of single shows in San Diego, Tucson, Las Vegas, Tempe, Salt Lake City, and Portland, and two-night stands in Denver, Seattle, and Vancouver. The first 12 shows were at indoor arenas, but the last five were in baseball stadiums: three nights at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles shows, on October 25 and 26, 1975, featured opening acts Emmylou Harris and Joe Walsh, plus a gospel choir and a crowd in excess of 55,000 each night. If there’s a moment when Elton John went from #1 to whatever’s higher than that, the Dodger Stadium shows, and the end of the West of the Rockies tour, were that moment. But there’s only one direction you can go from the highest high. Elton would again play in America during the summer of 1976, score his biggest hit single to date (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and release another album that fall, Blue Moves. But he’d never again scale the heights of ’75.