"Watch the black smoke fly to heaven, See the red flame light the sky"
After years, if not decades, of wandering about the cultural wilderness, it has reached the point where even the most indifferent music fan has to admit that between 1970 and 1975, Elton John put out some pretty good music. While it is albums like Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy that tend to garner most praise, in recent years, albums like Madman Across the Water, Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player have gained greater praise. Though the Cool Police would doubtless shake their heads in disbelief at such a statement, there’s an argument to be made that in the first half of the 70s, Elton John and Bernie Taupin penned a songbook every bit as enduring as the one David Bowie created in the same time period.
It is odd then, that 17.11.70 has been pretty much ignored in the latter day career reassessment of Elton’s work. A live set ostensibly recorded for radio, as was Bowie’s later much-bootlegged Santa Monica ’72, 17.11.70 also shares the ‘live in the studio / tiny club in front of an invited audience’ approach that Randy Newman had put to such good use earlier in the year. Recorded with the recently formed ‘Elton John Band’, a couple of years before the line up was finalised by the addition of guitar player Davey Jonhstone, the performance saw the three piece band of Elton John, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson rattle through a well chosen set which is notable for not including any of the big hits that we retrospectively might have expected to be included on a live album by one of the most successful solo artists of his generation.
There-in actually lies the appeal of 17.11.70, in that it’s Elton John playing some of his lesser celebrated numbers with a bare bones band. It’s almost as if they’d invented Ben Folds Five before Ben Folds did. It’s Elton John doing what he did best, while he was still discovering the extent of his not inconsiderable performance powers, and unearthing deep-cuts from his discography long before it was cool to do so. Hell, he and the band will even throw in a spirited version of “Honky Tonk Women” in there for good measure too.
If you’re not an Elton John fan, then chances are 17.11.70 isn’t going to change your opinion on him. However, if you have even a lapsed appreciation of his early 70s work, and haven’t checked out Live 17.11.70, then it’s a really pleasant surprise, and you’ll wonder quite why it doesn’t receive the praise that the rest of his early work does. Sure, it doesn’t sound as polished as you might expect, but again, hearing Elton John and the backbone of his band sounding so raw is a huge part of its appeal.