That was the best news regarding Saturday’s concert at Kleinhans Music Hall, when the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was joined by piano man Michael Cavanaugh in a tribute to Elton John.
The sound system difficulties that have been plaguing the orchestra’s pops concerts at Kleinhans seemed to have been completely fixed. You could hear Cavanaugh’s vocals clearly, sometimes more clearly than you could hear Elton John’s voice on the radio. Cavanaugh had a band with him, but they weren’t obtrusively loud. The orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kraemer, came through loud and clear.
I’ve heard that representatives of Kleinhans and the BPO held meetings to improve the sound situation. Whatever they did, judging from Saturday, it worked. If you closed your eyes, it was pretty much perfect.
If you opened your eyes, one thing was puzzling.
Why did Cavanaugh not dress as Elton John? How could he resist a pair of funky glasses? A Liberace-like long fur coat? When you play Elton John people expect you to be Elton John, not yourself. So why not take it all the way?
Cavanaugh took a number of breaks, and I kept hoping he would come out in costume. But no. He did have Elton John’s little boy haircut, more or less. Other than that he looked like a mime. Black clothes, sneakers. Sigh, for lost opportunities.
You could argue, I guess, that his concert, described as a tribute to Elton John, was broader than that. It was more like Elton John’s life and times. Cavanaugh included an early rock medley, with “Rock Around the Clock” and “Peggy Sue.” He sang “American Pie,” inviting all of us in the big crowd to wail along. Which we did, reveling in the improved acoustics.
He did do a good dozen or so Elton John songs, all hits. I had been hoping he would dig for a few obscure numbers – I like “Skyline Pigeon” – but what he did was good, from “Candle in the Wind” to “I’m Still Standing.”
It showed that Cavanaugh had paid his dues in hard-knock piano bars, the kind of piano bars Billy Joel was talking about in “Piano Man,”where you have to go out every night and pound the piano before an audience of drunks. He had that solid mastery, hammering out those bright, primary-color chords.
He did “Piano Man,” by audience request (we voted by texting), and he rocked it. Cavanaugh starred in the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out” on Broadway, so no surprise there, but it was a treat to hear “Piano Man” sung by someone who is no amateur.
The piano had an admirable honky-tonk sound in “Honky Cat,” and snorts and growls from the BPO brass contributed to the lowdown vibe. “Crocodile Rock” had a lot of zest, and so did “Benny and the Jets.” Cavanaugh’s backup musicians were pros, particularly the keyboard player.
The non-Elton John songs were ambitious. In Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” it’s hard to match Steve Perry’s voice, and Cavanaugh was par for the course. A set of Chicago songs posed similar challenges. But the orchestra arrangements were creative, with interesting percussion. Cavanaugh and his band gave it their all, and the audience ate it up.
The night wound down with “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”