What does it mean when a veteran pop superstar plays a venue several times smaller than the arenas and stadiums he usually fills?
When the venue is in a media capital like Los Angeles, it means he has a very special new album to promote.
At least that was the case Wednesday night at the Wiltern, where Elton John performed a handful of tunes from “Wonderful Crazy Night,” due next month, for a crowd of industry insiders and fans who’d paid $200 each to be there. (For $800 the fans could’ve gotten a backstage tour as well.)
This type of ground-softening event, often referred to as an underplay, is common to rollouts of albums with a story an artist might feel the need to explain. The implicit hope is that his sympathetic audience might spread the word ahead of the album’s release.
For “Wonderful Crazy Night,” the story is how eager John was to make a “joyous record,” as he described it at the Wiltern. His last album, 2013’s stripped-down “The Diving Board,” was “very introspective,” he said, but this one is “rock ’n’ roll like it used to be.”
“Nobody rocks out anymore,” he added. “They’re all bed-wetters.”
After listening to the album and watching John and his trusty five-piece band crank out half of it, I can’t say that “Wonderful Crazy Night” is likely to restore anyone’s faith in rock ’n’ roll. It’s melodic and upbeat, but the songwriting by John and Bernie Taupin is far less vivid than on “The Diving Board.”
You hardly envision a generation of bed-wetters hearing this thing and being shaken out of their frailty.
But that didn’t make Wednesday’s concert a bust. Beyond its power to create buzz, a superstar in a mid-size theater means a welcome opportunity to focus on aspects of a performance that are harder to grasp in a more spectacle-prone environment.
There was John’s voice, still flexible at age 68 in the new tunes and especially the old classics -- including a roaring “Philadelphia Freedom” and a tender “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” -- with which he filled out the two-hour show.
There was the almost psychic connection between the singer and his musicians, a deep chemistry that allowed them to slow the groove of “Bennie and the Jets” by just a few beats per minute each time they finished the song’s chorus.
And there were the appealing bits of show-business background that John dropped into the show, such as when he explained that he’d hired Gus Dudgeon to produce his self-titled 1970 album after he heard David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which Dudgeon also produced.
“I have David Bowie to thank for that,” he said, before dedicating “Rocket Man” to “the Starman himself,” who died last week.
Among his other shout-outs were those to his husband, David Furnish, whom he said recently “weeded out all the horrible people” from John’s life, and his new record label, Island, which signed on to release “Wonderful Crazy Night” following the end of John’s brief pact with Capitol.
Draw your own conclusions about the shade he was throwing here.
To the label he dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and if that wasn’t a clear sign that he’s looking to the label to keep him in the pop conversation in 2016, consider the three Island acts he brought onstage for perfunctory duets: Shawn Mendes (in “Tiny Dancer”), Demi Lovato (in “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy (in “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”).
Did it matter that the guy standing next to me leaned over to ask who Stump was? Only if I hadn’t just told you about it.