The magic of Elton John’s many tricks

The further rock ’n’ roll twists away from its genesis, the more difficult it becomes for rock ’n’ rollers to distinguish their bag from others’. Sui generis inevitably evolves into sui generic, which isn’t quite as nasty a criticism as it sounds. With few exceptions, musicians are, creatively, what they eat. Nevertheless, the best among them — those who appear and reappear — are thieves and magicians.

Elton John is a member of both guilds. Though, I’ve long found him a curious outlier among the thieves and magicians. And not just because he spent time on stage in a duck suit.

The rudiments of his music never pushed the envelope, so to speak, as much as they folded the envelope into little origami figures, time and again. That brings me back to his hot period — dates vary by listener, but I put it between 1970 and 1975 — which continues to intrigue me for what is familiar and what is not.

Elton John

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Toyota Center, 1510 Polk

Details: $59.50-$249.50; 866-446-8849,

One line from that period runs back in time to Little Richard in the ’50s. That’s the Elton John seen in photos with his fists on his piano’s keys, his entire body seeming to levitate parallel to the ground like he’s possessed, which he may have been. At 71, he doesn’t really do that anymore. But in an era when guitarists were slinging and swinging their portable instruments around, John fought perception that his chosen conduit was an anvil.

Another line runs back through classic country music. When John and Leon Russell made a collaborative album four years ago, John spoke of the influence Oklahoman Russell had on his music. It shows up over and over: the funky twang in “Honky Cat” and particularly in “Tiny Dancer,” which would be a country music song even without the pedal steel guitar. Even “Rocket Man” — for all its superterranean imagery — is a blue-collar song that could easily stand as allegory for the life of a long-haul truck driver.

Yet that song, one of John’s most identifiable, also found him (and lyricist Bernie Taupin) looking skyward, dragging popular music further from American soil.

“People were looking to find bigger stories to tell and bigger ways to tell them and bigger sounds to use,” said Jason Heller, whose book “Strange Stars” was about the overlap between science fiction and popular music of the ’70s. “You had the moon landing in ’69. Humans were starting to question to a level they hadn’t before what our place was in the universe. Thoughts of encountering other life. How do we redefine ourselves? And a lot of those ideas were expressed musically by people like Elton John.”

There’s some other element in there, a classical-like embrace of treating songs with a more regal touch than just a sequence of verses and choruses.

Twisted together, these threads — primal early rock ’n’ roller, sad country balladeer, space-age songwriter, classical architect — sounded novel at the time, particularly because of where rock had gone; namely toward the electric guitar, an implement as well as instrument that offered stage mobility and suggestive metaphorical implications with which the piano simply could not compete.

To capture attention with an instrument so square as the keyboard was an undertaking that required a particularly fetching sound. And, yes, some presto-style gusto, too.

I realize much of the success of the Elton John experience emerges from the flair he has for decades brought to his performances — in particular his stage garb, which exists on some other plane that could accommodate cosmic collaborations: Say, between Lewis Carroll and Nudie Cohn, the Rodeo Tailor. This is part of the magic act.

John is on his farewell tour, which stops two nights this weekend at Toyota Center. And while the highest register of his voice retired long before, he still finds worlds of expression in the lower parts.

But I like to think Elton John without the trimmings remains a vital act, even reduced to only voice and piano. The strings aren’t overkill on “Tiny Dancer” as they often can be in pop and rock songs. But they’re not essential, either. The essentials are the spaces of silence John creates: the stair-stepping chords that replicate the heartbeat: bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum, then a pause before the chorus, where his voice reaches high with a weary plea.

The rampant showmanship and ostentation balances music about interiors, with characters often hiding in the corners of their minds.

The occasional Taupin line makes me cringe (“If I was a sculptor, but, then again, no …”), but the texture of John’s voice and the gentle sadness that curls around the piano notes like smoke always manages to rise above any shortcomings.

With Elton, as with most musicians I admire, the ballads don’t get fans out of their seats, but they are the songs that linger. They’re the songs that find you, rather than you finding them. Sometimes they pounce in the supermarket or on the radio. Other times they whisper when all is silent: during a long drive or a quiet moment at home.

The magician’s great trick is when the song actually plays — either through speakers or in one’s mind. Then, the threads become invisible, part of a beautiful illusion. You don’t think about Chopin, Little Richard or Leon Russell. They’ve become some other thing that doesn’t sound like anything else.

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