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Wrap up Pride with a technically perfect Elton John tribute show

SAN DIEGO -- If you are one who tends to feel all your Pride on Saturday and relax and kick back on Sunday, is there a treat in store for you, although standing on your feet maybe involved.

This Sunday, at 7 pm, there is an alternative way for you to extend or close out your weekend of Pride celebrations, by spending it with Elton John.

Elton - The Early Years (ETEY) is a tribute show that is coming this Sunday to Anthology in Little Italy.

Whether you are a rabid, lifetime fan of Elton John or were just a heavy listener of the (album oriented rock) AOR radio of the early 1970's, you will be completely entertained.

Elton and three of his very memorable bandmates of the era are brought to life by four seasoned musicians; Kenny Metcalf as Elton John, Joe Alessandro on drums as Nigel Olsson, Bobby H.Q. Storm on bass as Dee Murray, and Dean Cooper on guitar as Davey Johnstone.

Who can forget the outrageous props and outfits that were all about Elton John during his stage performances and on his record jackets in those days? He even sang about them … electric boots and mohair suits … and a concert at Dodger Stadium in the mid-70's produced a Dodger baseball uniform, with full bling.

That stage presence and the costumes embodied that period of Elton John's career and helped skyrocket him to fame every bit as much as his melodic handiwork complemented by his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. The combination of all those things made him a superstar of iconic proportions.

This is the Elton John who just a few years before had been Reginald Dwight; a frumpy young bloke who had adapted a new name before releasing his first album in 1969 in the UK, an album that got little attention on this side of the pond. A year later, that same guy stepped off a plane in Los Angeles to play his first gig in the USA -- at the Troubadour -- on a trip that would not only inspire one of his biggest hits, Tiny Dancer, but finally launch his career.

Elton John created his own destiny back in the 1970's, his songs demanded radio play and soon, domination.

His concerts were larger than life -- just like his persona -- long before his throat surgeries, hair implants, a misguided marriage and his drug and alcohol rehabilitation; long before both the AIDS epidemic and Broadway reinvented him into the activist musician and billion dollar empire he is today.

From 1969 to 1975 Elton John made ten albums and released a total of 13. He has since released 33 more studio albums, live concerts and other collaborations. But music enthusiasts know those early years are the period where he etched his name into the history books, and that is the man that Metcalf and his colleagues pay tribute to today.

"We currently pull our selections from around 30 songs from eight albums [between 1970 - 1975]," Metcalf recently told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

"You can only play so many songs in a two hour set, so we change them around a bit to keep it fun for us and entertaining for those who have seen us before. We are also continually working on new selections to add into the show, but timing is everything for us at this stage of the game."

"The best tribute band ever"

Be aware that this show is not just some fancy karaoke group -- all the music and the singing come from these four gentlemen, but you will put yourself right back where you were in 1974; because everyone in Elton - The Early Years is in full character and costume, and Metcalf's costumes change several times per show to reflect Elton's various moods and his style of the time period.

"The tribute show is a technical show and not a classic rock band playing Elton's material," said Metcalf. "We really want our show to be an Elton John 1970-75 experience that leaves the people blown away and for those who were there, to relive it."

Although they primarily choose what are known as "radio cuts" for their shows -- there are plenty of those to pull from -- they occasionally pull deeper cuts from some of those beloved early albums and add them to the set as well, with Metcalf either playing solo on the piano (Sixty Years On) or the full band taking one on (Madman Across the Water, Have Mercy on the Criminal).

"We really strive to perform these as close as we can to how Elton played them, and I continually practice his vocal tones and delivery to continue to improve inflections that are his key voice signatures," Metcalf continued. "If not … my voice can slip out and sing it sloppy and I don't want Kenny Metcalf to be heard … I want Elton John to be heard, and that is when it is a real tribute to him and his fans."

According to Metcalf, putting together the group was at first a bit of a challenge. Members had to be willing to learn Elton John's most demanding catalog of songs, pick up signature licks, wear costumes, wigs and be willing to play at a moment's notice. They reached out to friends in the business and after six long months, the current line-up was ready to start rehearsing for their first gig in May of 2010.

Some of them have been playing together for years in other projects, but not all of them have been lifelong Elton John fans. Metcalf's appreciation eclipses Cooper's long-held fan status, but bass player Storm was, and still is, traditionally a "metal head" bassist. And although ETEY also launched with Alessandro, he had always been more into progressive rock and jazz, so clearly there was some "getting up to speed" required to make this happen.

Since that first show, they have been busy rehearsing, planning, scheduling, performing and adapting costumes that depict the time period. They've also continued to gel as a team, getting tighter not only in their delivery and ability to read each other, but also in the total show experience they provide for their audiences. Thanks to word of mouth and social media, the show has developed quite a following, too.

They've seen this movie, too

There has been a great bit of serendipity involved with this band from the beginning.

Caleb Quaye, a friend of Elton's since the mid-sixties, was a a session player for multiple bands (including Elton's) in the late 60s and early 70s. He eventually joined Elton full-time starting with the Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves albums and their subsequent tours, at a time when Elton rapidly expanded his band. He later played with Hall and Oates. Quaye was introduced to ETEY's music last year and they became friends.

Note: This weekend, first at Orange County Fairgrounds on Saturday, and again on Sunday at Anthology, Mark Servi will be joining the band onstage as a second guitarist and perform as Quaye.

Metcalf also recently met Elton John's long-time glasses designer, Ray Winston. A stickler about presenting Elton on stage as accurately as possible, Metcalf has come to find that getting it right can take some effort. The glasses Elton wore in those early days were all custom made by Winston and just can't be found, so Metcalf searches out odd-sized glasses and adds his own bling, as shown above, right.

(Check out more ETEY costumes, glasses and additional bling on their Facebook page.)

"I was in Pasadena this month and I found a vintage pair of white Wayfarer looking frames, and took them to an eyeglass store in Glendale to have prescription lenses put in them," Metcalf explained. "When I told them I was doing an Elton John Tribute show, they told me that the man who designed Elton's glasses comes into their shop to sell them his new line of frames."

Ironic, to be sure. What are the chances of meeting up with the man who designed all those glasses that Metcalf tries so hard to recreate?

"Two days later when I picked up my frames ... they told me Ray was en route, so I went out for a soda and when I returned he was there. I had my briefcase in hand with nine pairs of glasses I had made," Metcalf beamed.

Winston was impressed; by the glasses, by a photo of the blinged-up Dodger Stadium costume, and by the ETEY music that Metcalf played for him on his iPod. Rumor has it that he was so impressed, he may even donate some frames left over from the old days.

Hello Yellow Brick Road

Metcalf, who met Elton John as a teenager, is really throwing his heart and soul into this tribute experience, and in doing so, positive things just keep on happening.

  • He has a serious auto-immune disease that honestly should not allow him to do what he is doing, but since he began channelling Elton, he has thrived.
  • He met Elton's longtime bandmate Caleb Quayle by chance through contacts in the business.
  • He ran into Elton's glasses designer, again by chance.
  • Friends of his daughter recently introduced ETEY's music to David Furnish, Elton's longtime partner and now husband.

    All of this adds to the allure of the show, but the story gets better.

    The real Elton and the tribute Elton both spent their last Christmases at Cedar Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, awaiting the birth of a child; Metcalf's granddaughter Violet, and Elton and Furnish's son Zachary, were born there this past December 25, 2010.

    Although the two musicians did not meet, one would expect that eventually, Sir Elton himself will be sitting in the audience of an upcoming show, watching Metcalf and reliving those honky cat days.

    After seeing them yourself, you just might believe it, too.

    IF YOU GO

    Elton -- The Early Years plays at Anthology this Sunday, July 17th at 7 pm.

    Anthology is located at 1337 India Street San Diego CA 92101, in Little Italy, between Ash and A Streets.  

    Tickets are available ONLINE or by calling the box office at  (619) 595-0300.  

    Ticket prices are $10 - $15, or $29 for a booth.

    To learn a little history of Metcalf, read the related stories on the page, above right.

    To learn more about Elton -- The Early Years, you can follow them on Facebook or visit their website.

    Photo credits, above left: Top, middle - Kim Loy; bottom - Desiree Metcalf.