We started counting the seats, adding up the number of utilitarian molded, scarlet plastic chairs in one ring of Birmingham’s NIA. Phil used a logarithm to deduce the numbers. I guess it’s like the number of beans in a jar. Maybe I’m not hungry, or it’s simply that it’s more than meets the eye. It looked to me like 5,000 was more like 12,000, so math tells us. Maybe it’s just that we are not used to these places Elton frequents. The big time. This is it!
It’s a hell of a stage. The whole thing looks like a huge dark slide. Imagine looking downhill on black ice that’s slanted just enough to let you push a snowball down and watch it tumble into a snowman. I feel a pang of guilt as my clunky soles scuff the slightly sticky, sheer black vinyl surface, a floor so shiny you can steal a glance at the formidable lighting rig overhead as you reach to tie your laces.
We are surrounded by technology here in this hangar-like hall. It’s an all-tech affair, some high, some low. Behind us is the largest LED wall imaginable. A. concentrated gaggle of leather-clad, tough techie types are manning the controls under the stage in what looks like a scene from a Bond flick. There’s all this high technology flashing around and also an incongruous and slightly daunting-looking fold of flaccid pink sacking dangling from the rafters. I’m told it’s an udder.
This is really a mega production, from the three courses for dinner to the all-you-can-eat Elton sonic buffet. It feels like we are slipping into a well-oiled machine. So far, though, we are feeling like we are sticking out pretty hard! Outside there are 20 trucks, and inside enough workers to construct a pyramid. It boggles the mind. It also explains why we are all giggling like idiots in this place. I look back to see the band all in a line standing on a riser, looking like scruffy superheroes. It’s like vertigo on laughing gas. We are opening for a legend.
I get a tap on the shoulder. Word is Elton is ready for me. I feel ready too. There’s little whelm in me to over, if you catch my drift. It’s a perfectly manageable affair. I’m led down various nondescript corridors to a draped doorway. Elton’s hounds greet me, two soft companions and the big man himself. He’s hanging in one corner of a leather sofa with his feet up, looking very relaxed in a shiny black Adidas tracksuit, rose-tinted glasses and some serious emerald-like raw stones from each ear.
Here, I think to myself, is a man completely content living his own legend. It’s the kind of presence that is utterly disarming and I find myself chatting with the man as if we were already friends.
I was not in the room with him for long and yet we covered a lot of ground. We established that I’m not Irish, that Timbaland is a very shy guy that makes singers cry, that Celine Dion is indeed, as I suspected, a paranoid maniac that travels with eight doctors. She cancels shows at the slightest hint of sickness. There’s a playful hate in Elton’s voice as he tells it like he sees it. It’s very real. The f-bomb slips in.
Elton’s manager pops in with pictures from a hotel Elton is going to stay at in Brazil. The big man is very matter-of-fact. He mocks mildly at how it looks like a convention center. His only concern is if it has a decent comfy bed. Serious, down-to-earth, one-to-one with the Rocket Man, I leave feeling respected and in the mood to make a little legend out of myself up on that stage.
I break the news to the band that Elton insisted we play longer tonight. Somehow by the time I got back out there, from the cave and the corridors of fame, the stage had changed or we had changed. At that moment I knew we were gonna be alright up there. I think about how piano means quiet on a musical score as I walk onto the black vinyl. A huge red piano looks like the loudest acoustic instrument in the west. My monitor engineer points out that the piano is called Nikita. It’s all falling into place.
This one’s for you, Birmingham.