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Elton John’s 50th Anniversary Honky Château 2 CD Set Features Live Debut Of Rocket Man

Mark Smotroff lifts off in to the pop stratosphere with new live archival gems….

The new 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition compact disc set celebrating Elton John’s landmark 1972 smash hit album Honky Château is a wonderful release for serious fans of the artist and the album. In addition to the classic original recording we get bonus studio sessions as well as tremendous live recordings exclusive to this two CD collection.

Just for a reminder, in case you didn’t know or forgot how big this album and its hits were — and have been over the years — Elton’s official press release explains:

“Following the release of Honky Château, by June 1972, “Rocket Man” was in the UK pop charts at No 2. In the US, the single reached No 6. Honky Château became the first of six consecutive Billboard Hot 100 No 1 albums. It remains a firm fixture in the setlist of this record-breaking Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. “Honky Cat” showcased the extraordinary swagger that was to define all of Elton’s work for the following half-decade. His first up-tempo number to make the US Top 10, the track helped cement Elton’s reputation in America.”

“Rocket Man” has gone on to be an integral part of Elton’s career and it even inspired cover versions over the years by no less than Kate Bush and William Shatner.  According to the wiki“Elton John and Dua Lipa’s 2021 collaborative song “Cold Heart” samples “Rocket Man” for its chorus, along with snippets of other Elton John songs. It topped the charts in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, reached No. 2 in Ireland, and peaked at No. 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100.”

While I have discussed the studio sessions in some detail in my review on Analog Planet — which you can read by clicking here — for this review, I’m going to focus in on the live recordings which are exclusive to this 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Honky Château.

Captured just days after they finished recording Honky Château and performed a full three months before the album’s actual release in May of that year, these recordings from the Royal Festival Hall in London document a remarkable moment of how deep the group had gotten into this music. There is a special energy in these performances being played live on stage without a net for the first time. 

An aside: can you imagine the joy of being in the audience, and hearing the entire then new album perform live before it was released!?  

These stereo soundboard recordings on the 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Honky Château sound quite nice for what they are. Since the liner notes credit producer Gus Dudgeon for these tracks, my guess is that they were captured on at least 2-channel reel-to-reel for posterity, probably mixed on the fly in stereo and thus leaving no real opportunity to “remix” them afterwards. I say this because the individual instrument levels aren’t optimized as they might have been if captured on multi-track tape and then properly mixed for best balance. So, for example, there are times when Davey Johnstone’s guitar is overwhelmed by the rest of the band when he probably should have been up a little higher in the mix.  The backing vocals could have been raised more as well. These are of course minor details ultimately — it is nonetheless a thrill that we now have part of this great concert to enjoy (I hope they officially release the whole show someday!) — but you should know going in here that these are a somewhat raw document of the moment (and that is not a bad thing!). 

I did check the versions streaming in CD quality (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) on Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here) and they sound about the same (as they should!).  

Universal Music, publishers of this album, has even posted some video from the performance on YouTube, which you can see the end of this review (it is possible that audio was taken from those sources, but again, this is just speculation).

More importantly, it is worth noting again that Elton on this album was playing with his own band for the first time. This is a group he had been working with live for the prior two years more or less. New guitarist, Davey Johnson blended in with the group beautifully as you can hear when Elton hands off the center stage to him during his solo for “Amy” and the Mandolin solo on “Honky Cat.” These were no doubt great new textures for Elton to be able to deliver live on stage for his fans. 

They sound like they been playing together for ages .

Some of my other favorite tracks from these live recordings  include the rocking “Susie (Dramas)” and the beautiful version of “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters.” “Rocket Man is also impressive because they pull off all those fine arrangement details of the studio version live on stage (listen close and you can hear the band members pull off those nice high harmonies, which as I mentioned should have been louder in the mix ideally). 

The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Honky Château is a fine release and especially if you are an Elton John fan it is a no brainer to at least pick up this affordably priced two CD set. If you click on the album title anywhere in this review it will take you to Amazon or you can certainly find it in your favorite music stores or wherever CDs are sold. 

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