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First and Second Episode At Lakeland
Friday, December 1 2000

Written by Reggie Zippo.

First and Second Episode At Lakeland

February 5, 2000, at 4:00 AM was a very dark and cold Saturday morning that found me traveling at break neck speed to the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida. I was about an hour away with a mission to be among the first of the local die-hard fans to purchase a ticket for the upcoming March 17, 2000 Elton John solo concert. The tickets would be available at 10:00 AM, but I needed to be in the line very early that morning. In the past, a position in the ticket line would always be determined by lottery. This event, however, was going to be different. First come first served was the rule of the day. It was essential for me to get there ahead of the crowd in order to be seated in or near the front row.

As I neared the Civic Center, anticipation mounted in my soul. My spirit was high with accomplishment of having arrived in record time. That is until I saw a large group of people already gathered at the ticket booth. Disappointment immediately set in as I counted 55 people waiting in line ahead of me. Eventually, I found out that some of them had been there as early as 4:00 PM the day before. I am a true die-hard fan, but I could not imagine braving below freezing weather for 18 hours with very little protection. Florida does get a winter chill during February and the most these fans had brought with them were thin coats and equally thin blankets. However, I must give credit for the very first 2 people in line. They had the forethought to bring two portable bed cots to sleep in to keep themselves warm. Since this same scene was probably taking place at other ticket locations around Florida, I could not help but wonder if I would even be able to get a floor seat.

Time pressed forward as I became familiar with the other fans in line. I discovered that a few of the people were there simply because their partners in love sent them alone to brave the elements. One husband told me that his wife said, "Don't come back without great seats!" That poor fellow was just ahead of me. By 7:00 AM, a local radio station had set up a remote broadcast to report on the type of fans that were waiting to purchase tickets. Free doughnuts and coffee were abundant and EJ CD prizes were awarded to winners of an impromptu Q&A session. I didn't participate since I already had all of the CDs that were being given away. Classic EJ songs filled the air as the morning sun began to glow. At around 9:00 AM, the line behind me stretched out to a sea of fans that were not as smart as the rest of us. I started to feel a little better about being number 56 in line. Eventually, a representative of the Civic Center came out to coach us about how to approach the ticket booth and to have checks properly filled out and/or credit card information ready ahead of time. One lady was devastated because she only had one check with her and had accidentally filled it out for less than the price of the ticket. Fortunately, a friend came to her rescue.

Finally, 10:00 AM signaled the opening of the ticket booths. There were four booths in all, but the line did not feel as if it was moving fast enough for me. As the first few people received their treasures, I could hear shouts of glee that they had gotten seats in the seventh row. First in line at the location of the concert and the closest they could get was in the seventh row? What chances would I have of getting that close when I was so far away in line? At this point, I doubted that I would even be able to get one of the floor seats. Slowly, I shuffled inch by inch as the line in front of me grew smaller and smaller. Devastation and panic were in full gear. Finally, I was the next to receive the long awaited ticket! Row 39! Well, at least it was a floor seat. After consigning the prized ticket to the depths of my wallet, I sauntered past the throngs of fans that would still be in line long after I found my way back to the main road home. I felt so sorry for them to have to settle for less than favorable seats, but was happy knowing that I had gotten what I came for. This sorrow, however, was misplaced when I entered the auditorium on the evening of the concert.

Second Episode At Lakeland

When March 17, 2000 finally arrived for the EJ concert at the Lakeland Civic Center, Florida, I was so excited that I could barely contain myself. After enduring chilly hours of waiting in line for a ticket a month earlier, it was all finally happening. I took the day off from work to allow enough time to travel to Lakeland and enjoy some pre-concert activities. The plan was to get a hotel room near the arena, meet up with a fellow Hercules member (Barb Meadows from Orlando) at a nearby shopping plaza to have a pre-concert meal, then arrive at the auditorium in plenty of time to visit the vendor booths and hand out Hercules souvenir postcards. Since Barb got sidetracked trying to sneak into Elton's sound check session, which she did not accomplish, we were not able to meet for dinner.
Acquiring a hotel room was also nearly canceled. Since there were several convention meetings scheduled around the Lakeland area during that same weekend, hotel rooms were very scarce. I visited about a dozen locations before I found an acceptable vacancy. Next stop the Civic Center!

As I entered the main building of the Civic Center, the mood seemed rather hushed. Not a typical setting for an EJ concert. Everyone was just quietly walking around. This seemed odd to me, so I began to hand out Hercules postcards to anyone who was wearing an EJ concert T-shirt. At the same time, I visited the vendors and noticed the same type of merchandise that was available from the last EJ concert that I attended. I bought a coffee mug for a friend's birthday and a program tour book for myself. As I ventured further, I happened upon a rather large party of fans, hosted by a local radio station. Non-EJ prizes were being given out to people who could correctly answer EJ related questions. I didn't participate, but when it was over I asked for the MC to page Barb for me. I had never met Barb before and figured this would be the best way to find her in such a large crowd. Before long, Barb came over and introduced herself and her small troop of friends. We all had a nice chat.
Before leaving to find our seats, Barb showed me a wonderful creation that she had commissioned to specifically give to EJ during the concert. I wish I had taken a photo of it as a mere description would not do it justice. It was a marionette doll with a perfect rendering of EJ's face from the Made In England album. The face was a remarkable detailed painting and the rest of the doll was equally crafted. I secretly wanted one for myself (Barb, are you reading this?). This doll would prove to be a show stopper. More about that in just a moment.

In part one of my Lakeland experience I stated that my sorrow was misplaced for the fans who would not get favorable seats. Well, the reason I said that is because as soon as I entered the actual concert area I realized that ALL of the seats were FANtastic! So, it really didn't matter if I had floor seats or otherwise. The auditorium was so small (the size of a large school gymnasium) that EJ was going to be close at any angle. I felt so much better for everyone, except for those in the first row since I should have been sitting there as well! The crowd still seemed rather hushed while they quietly waiting for EJ to arrive. Even when the concert did not start at the prescribed time (8:00 PM), everyone remained composed. As the prerecorded intro music began to blare at about 8:15 PM, however, the once tranquil gathering turned into a frenzied throng of die-hard fans. EJ was about to emerge! On cue, Elton entered the stage area and quickly made his way to his trademark black grand piano to begin the familiar "Your Song" show starter. From this point forward my attention was center stage, oblivious to my surroundings. Elton wore the same purple suit as he did for the VH1 San Francisco concert. The only element missing was Elton's band mates.

To describe EJ's performance for each song would be pointless, since we all already know how FANtastic he performs each old song to sound brand new with much enthusiasm. Suffice it to say, EJ was flawless throughout the entire concert. I was not surprised by any of the selections because I had a copy of the set list firmly in hand before the concert even started. The following was the set list that he followed:

  • Your Song
  • Skyline Pigeon
  • The Greatest Discovery
  • Border Song
  • Daniel
  • Harmony
  • Honky Cat
  • Rocket Man
  • Tiny Dancer
  • Someday Out Of The Blue (accompanied with fresh video scenes from El Dorado)
  • Philadelphia Freedom
  • Blessed
  • Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
  • I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues
  • Ticking
  • Carla/Etude
  • Tonight
  • Burn Down The Mission
  • The One
  • Blue Eyes
  • Empty Garden (accompanied with a superb video tribute to John Lennon)
  • Take Me To The Pilot
  • Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
  • Crocodile Rock
  • Can You Feel The Love Tonight (accompanied with poor quality video scenes from The Lion King)
  • Bennie And The Jets
  • Candle In The Wind

The props that were used to decorate the stage area seemed to be recycled pieces from The Big Picture tour that I had attended on May 5, 1998, but they still properly fit the setting. Hanging from the rafters above Elton was a very large apparatus of lights that had parachute type fabric extending outward to give the impression of a hot air balloon, which had imprints of golden Lalique type angels all around. After EJ fed us several offerings, the lighting rig began to slowly extend outward in all directions, like mechanical arms on an automobile factory assembly line. The end result was a magnificent grandiose chandelier of lights and golden metal. Only EJ could have included something so grand to compliment his on stage persona.

Mid way through the concert, EJ did the usual signature walk in which he starts at the far end of the stage to begin shaking hands and autographing various memorabilia. He took his time to complete this gesture, but there were 2 particularly unique objects that were presented to EJ during this signature walk. Among the usual tour programs, album covers, and photographs, not to mention the bushels of flowers that EJ was handed, there was an extremely large framed painting of EJ. This painting seemed to be as large as a door, if not larger. This fan must have had much difficulty in getting such a piece to the front row, let alone transporting it to the concert in the first place. Elton didn't even bat an eye. He signed it as quickly as he had with the previous fan's memorabilia.

As EJ neared the end of this autograph session, I happened to look up at one of the large video screens to see Barb's marionette doll in full view. Elton was smiling and laughing as he played with the doll on stage. The crowd went wild. Everyone cheered as EJ worked the marionette until a stagehand came to take it away from him. Barb's gift was clearly a hit with EJ and the entire audience. I was so pleased to have been able to see the doll before it was given to Elton. But I still wanted one for myself (are you reading this Barb?).

As the nearly 3 hour concert came to a close, and all of the encores had been exhausted, it was finally time for Elton to say goodbye. Everyone knew that "Candle In The Wind" would be the last encore because EJ was now wearing his traveling outfit when he emerged onstage. It seemed only a moment ago that the concert had started. Was it worth braving hours of chilling winds to purchase a ticket? Was it worth taking a day off from work to travel to Lakeland to attend the concert? And, was it worth desperately trying to find a hotel room for just 3 hours of concert pleasure? I would not have changed a single moment. The whole experience was, for lack of a better word, awesome! As Elton took his bows and said goodbye to Lakeland, I wished the whole event would immediately repeat itself. I had to consign myself to the fact, however, that I would never be able to relive that same moment over again. For about a week, I tried to envision every ounce of Elton's performance, but found it quite difficult to remember all of the details. I wanted desperately to retain a sense of freshness in my mind. Then the most amazing thing happened one evening.

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