As the summer of 1970 leaned into its final weeks, Elton John was about to embark on his first tour of the United States.
The singer-pianist was promoting his upcoming concept album Tumbleweed Connection. John recruited bassist Dee Murray and former Spencer Davis Group drummer Nigel Olsson for the impending trek.
The spirt, energy and arrangements of the trio’s 1970-72 tours lie at the heart of tribute band Early Elton. The group features pianist-vocalist Jeff Kazee, drummer Rich Pagano, and bassist John Conte. (Kazee and Conte are members of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; Pagano performs with Beatlues tribute ensemble the Fab Faux.)
Early Elton performs Friday at the State Theatre in Easton. The concert is the latest installment of the “Stage on Stage” live music series, in which the band and fans share the theater’s historic main stage.
“It’s a period that’s really steeped in Americana and soul music, and gospel and rhythm and blues; stuff that really speaks to us,” Conte said during a Sept. 28 phone interview. “It’s like a power trio with no guitar — a piano power trio. It’s amazing the amount of sound they made with a trio.”
As the legend goes, John’s then-label did not have enough funds to send him tour with a full band in August, 1970, according to the Early Elton website. So John had to take a different approach, rearranging the music to fit within the limitations of his new trio.
“There’s really a lot of room for the bass to be expressive, for everyone to be expressive,” Conte said. “He really developed this high-energy style, a lot of dynamics going from raucous energy to very soft, sensitive moments. We’re trying to stay true to the way he changed the arrangements.”
Conte said the idea for Early Elton sprung from a chance gig he shared with Kazee and Pagano in 2009. During their soundcheck, the three musicians jammed on John’s “Take Me to the Pilot” — one of Conte’s personal favorite cuts. Following the impromptu jam, Conte, Kazee and Pagano shared their appreciation for that era of John’s career. (Conte points to John’s live album 17-11-70 as the benchmark for the type of show they strive to deliver.)
“We did it kind of on a whim. We played a couple of times in New York and didn’t know how it would be received. At that time we had a smaller group of songs and the group kept growing,” Conte recalled. “It takes us on uncertain adventures and then we play off each other; it’s very interesting in that no one show is exactly the same as the other, that’s for sure.”
Though their show is a tribute to John’s early years — with a focus on the singer’s first three albums — Conte stressed that there are no costumes or stage props. Instead, fans experience the raw power of the music that was recorded in that time. “Everybody’s ears are wide open. We pick our spots where we can be a little more adventurous and be supportive of the song,” Conte said. “Nobody’s trying to be Elton. We’re not wearing wigs and suits; there’s not a guy in the middle of the stage being Elton. Everyone has equal billing.”
He later added, “What i’ve enjoyed the most is playing with Rich and Jeff and expressing ourselves within the context (of the music), and being able to express ourselves and our own music personalities within, while retaining the integrity of Elton’s songs.”
Conte said it has been rewarding watching audiences’ reactions and their embracing of the show, despite it focusing on a small segment of John’s career. However, it is a chapter that includes such hits as “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Rocket Man.”
“We have this contrast, alternating contrast of very recognizable songs and ones (fans) may not be so familiar with, but they’re certainly going to be entertained.” Conte said.
Early Elton performs 7:30 p.m. Friday at the State Theatre, 453 Northampton St., Easton. Tickets cost $35.