Perhaps 5,000 Hoosiers gathered at Conner Prairie’s amphitheatre on Saturday night, July 23, for an evening of Billy Joel’s and Elton John’s music as the sun descended, set, and disappeared.
‘Magical’ is too light a word for it.
Sometimes in this Flyover State the constellations align in a way that you have to be here to observe. A cluster of stars in Indy’s sky were front and center in way that you can’t see for the glare from New York or L.A.: the incredible and peripatetic Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the ISO’s irrepressible Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly, Michael Cavanaugh and his band, Billy Joel’s and Elton John’s music with its odd capacity for convening three generations, the civility of a crowd of relaxed Midwestern music lovers, all framed up by the rolling, West-facing hills of Conner Prairie itself. It gets no better than this.
Michael Cavanaugh does not ape Joel and John. He re-presents them. When faced with Cavanaugh’s musical dexterity and indomitable energy on the sweatiest summer stage, nobody is confused about the source of the sinuous musical lines of these two master song-writers. But it is Cavanaugh’s voice and presence that bring them to us. It’s like seeing your favorite Grandpa’s face, pressed indelibly into the eyes, jaw, and voice of your Dad. Family resemblance in the musical way rather than artless mimicry had this multi-generational crowd waving cell phone flashlights aloft when darkness fell, wondering why this stuff still feels like it did at seventeen.
Reportedly, Cavenaugh is Billy Joel’s hand-picked extender of his musical legacy. With good reason. In ways both billyjoelesque and eltonjohnian, Michael Cavanaugh becomes this generation’s Piano Man.
Perhaps part of the appeal for this Indiana crowd is the downtown spirit of both men’s writing (think Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ and John’s ‘Norma Jean’), no matter how much this is authentic or feigned-for-performance. Hoosiers are accustomed to being underestimated, so much so that it’s an understanding among us rather than a conversation. From both sides of the Atlantic, this music gathers us into itself like a warm blanket.
Cavanaugh’s band managed to bring both quick musical wit and seamless collaboration (with a symphony orchestra, no less …) to the stage. Amid a strong ensemble and fronting a formidable stage personality, saxophonist John Scarpulla earn special mention, both for his low-profile flavoring of the whole and for his searing riffs when the moment comes to step forward with a wail.
And, just for a distracting interlude, when have you heard a symphony orchestra blow you away with Deep Purple’s signature ‘Smoke on the Water’ …?
Saturday night was alright.