Here and There and More Than Once
I blogged here a couple of years ago about worthwhile concert recordings. For me to listen more than once, a live recording has to provide A) significant amounts of new music, such as Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen or Jackson Browne's Running on Empty; B) significant reinterpretations of familiar music, such as the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East; and/or C) spectacle on a scale so grand that it comes through in the grooves alone, such as Springsteen's Live 1975-1985. A live album in which an artist simply reprises the hits is, in my experience, rarely essential.
When Elton John released Here and There in 1976, it was considered a contractual-obligation quickie--five tracks each from 1974 shows in London and New York, all familiar Elton tunes. Nevertheless, it made the Top 10, because a recording of Elton reading from the phone book would have been a hit at that moment of his career. However, it would be nearly 20 years before it became more than just another live cash-in. And it's worth hearing today not merely because it's Elton, as was the case in 1976, but because in retrospect, it's really, really good Elton.
When Here and There was rereleased in 1995, producer Gus Dudgeon took advantage of the CD format to include additional tracks from both of the original shows, nearly doubling the album's length. Most important, Dudgeon corrected a baffling omission from the original. The New York show is the one at which John Lennon famously appeared with Elton, but the tracks chosen for the original vinyl release didn't include any of those Lennon performed on. (Oddly, there's no mention of Lennon on the original Here and There liner notes, although his appearance was arguably the most important thing about the New York show.) At the very least, it would have made sense to include the incendiary version of "I Saw Her Standing There" that had appeared on the flip-side of the "Philadelphia Freedom" 45 a year earlier. Fortunately, the expanded Here and There includes that track, and the others Lennon performed during what turned out to be his last-ever live appearance--"Whatever Gets You Through the Night" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
The revised Here and There provides, among other things, one rare song ("Bad Side of the Moon"), a version of an obscure album cut ("You're So Static," featuring the Muscle Shoals Horns), and two versions each of "Take Me to the Pilot" and "Your Song." One of the best tracks is "Love Song," which originally appeared on Tumbleweed Connection. For the live version, Elton invites Lesley Duncan, who wrote the song, to duet with him, and Davey Johnstone adds an understated guitar line not present on the Tumbleweed version. The result is a haunting performance that betters the original by a mile. (It wasn't officially released as a single, although MCA pressed it for radio-station use, and it got some limited airplay in the summer of 1976.) And of course, the album includes "I Saw Her Standing There," on which Lennon, Elton, and the band kick ass until their toes fall off, until their version actually stomps the Beatles' original.
What strikes me about Elton's albums from Honky Chateau through Here and There (1972-76) is the absolute--and audible--self-assurance of them. Elton sings like he knows he's got great material and that he sounds great doing it. This is especially true on the London disc of Here and There, where Elton and his band sound as good as they ever did in the studio (although Dudgeon admitted to cleaning up certain mistakes in the original with technology that didn't exist in 1976). The London disc's sense of focus, as well as its lack of on-stage banter and the relatively restrained performance, likely has a lot to do with the more intimate setting of the Royal Albert Hall and the presence of Britain's Princess Margaret at what was a royal benefit show. The New York show is more traditionally raucous. On both discs, however, Here and There captures Elton at his creative and commercial peak. It's a live album worth hearing more than once.
(Buy the expanded version of Here and There here. Or there.)
Recommended Reading: The latest installment of Adventures Through the Mines of Mellow Gold features two grade-A 70s hits that prove that Mellow Gold isn't always lame, and in the case of the second of the two featured records, not even especially mellow.