Eclectic bunch of artists sings to Sir, with love

Times Staff Writer

The Elton John tribute at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim was a musical adventure all too rare in the pop world -- more than a dozen singers, from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members to three Grammy nominees for best new artist, trying to put their stamps on selections from one of the great American songbooks.

OK, you're right: John and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, weren't born in this country. But the two Englishmen's music has been so shaped by American musical strains, from rock to occasional touches of country and blues, that it fits into the American pop tradition as comfortably as the music of Irving Berlin, who was born in Russia.

The 53-year-old former Reg Dwight may be Sir Elton John now, but he's also been embraced so fully in this country that he seems as American as Bob Hope, who also was born in England.

The first two-thirds of Friday's three-hour concert -- a benefit for music education sponsored by Yamaha as part of the 2003 NAMM winter conference -- was devoted to the guest artists each singing a favorite John number. In the final hour, John and his band mixed tunes from the recent "Songs From the West Coast," one of his strongest CDs in years, with some greatest hits.

Even if the music itself was as uneven as you'd expect from a lineup that ranged from such conventional figures as Nikka Costa ("Levon") and Jewel ("Your Song") to such masters as Ray Charles ("Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word") and Randy Newman ("Bennie and the Jets"), it was fun seeing which songs the artists selected and how they handled them.

Though John has written with others, all the selections, save a salute to "The Lion King" (which John wrote with Tim Rice), were John-Taupin numbers.

Most of the singers were backed by John's touring band, featuring longtime mainstays Davey Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums. Their presence helped energize some of the performers, but the band's arrangements proved too restrictive for others, including Rufus Wainwright ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road") and Charles. It would have been more interesting to see both singers working solo or with their own groups, so they would have had the freedom to improvise.

Norah Jones, one of the best new artist nominees, did bring her own band, which enabled her to inject a sweet, nostalgic edge into "Tiny Dancer." Diana Krall, accompanied only by her own piano, also put extra force into the socially conscious "Border Song," as if to underscore its brotherhood message.

John has called Brian Wilson one of his greatest influences, and the former Beach Boy and backup singers ended "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" with a burst of harmony that carried the old Beach Boy magic.

At the extremes, Take 6's gospel-tinted a cappella version of "Philadelphia Freedom" was a knockout, while Grammy nominee Vanessa Carlton's take on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" was painfully labored. The evening's lineup also included Bruce Hornsby, Michael McDonald, Brian McKnight and host Eric McCormack (from TV's "Will & Grace).

Singer-songwriter John Mayer, the third best new artist nominee, joined John in the evening's only duet -- a moving treatment of the gentle "Sacrifice."

Even with the ups and downs, it was a warm, generous evening, capped fittingly by John walking around the stage during the all-star finale, giving each performer a mighty hug.

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