It had been way too long since I got to enjoy the Quad City Bank & Trust Riverfront Pops – which was back in a big way Saturday, Aug. 20, at LeClaire Park.
I have no idea why I missed the great Queen tribute concert in 2019 (on Arsenal Island, due to that flood-ravaged year in downtown Davenport), which attracted nearly 8,000 people. This past weekend brought a top-notch Elton John program to an estimated crowd of at least 6,000 – Riverfront Pops’ biggest since COVID.
Through the deeply committed and expert Jeans ‘n’ Classics musicians (here for the first time with Quad City Symphony Orchestra), the guest band doesn’t consider themselves a tribute act (since they’re not imitating the immortal artists), but the group aims to faithfully interpret music of legendary rock and pop albums and artists, with their own special and signature flair, according to its website.
As a singer/songwriter and longtime piano player myself, I have long been in awe of Sir Elton – who’s now 75 and still in the midst of his long farewell world tour (which was in Chicago early this month) and apparently wrapping up next July.
The Jeans ‘n’ Classic crew (lead vocalist, piano, guitar, bass and drums) paired nicely with the QCSO in a satisfying, solid concert of 19 songs – surprisingly not all hits, while they could have easily filled it only with big pop singles.
It’s to the credit of founder/arranger and guitarist Peter Brennan and lead singer Jean Meilleur that they chose selections that challenged not only themselves, but were the best match for the orchestra, and offered a varied entertainment for the fans.
Of all Elton’s hits (he’s had 28 Billboard Top 10s, these are some that Riverfront Pops did NOT do – “Candle in the Wind,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl,” “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” (which already includes yearning strings), “Crocodile Rock” or “Bennie and the Jets.”
Pianist John Regan – who is outstanding and got to sing the first Elton classic, “Your Song” – teased the crowd with the intro to “Bennie” at one point, as Meilleur pointed out in the second half that they would do the 1973 B-side to that huge hit, a beautiful (but lesser-known) “Harmony,” which fit better to show off the QCSO.
The program started with another non-hit – “Funeral for a Friend” and “Love Lies Bleeding,” the former a powerful instrumental prelude, and both the orchestra and band were consistent in unleashing potent, emotional performances over the night.
A similar instrumental piece took place in the second half – with the dramatic orchestral prelude to “Tonight” (which actually lopped off the wonderful song of that name), serving as an intro to the fat piano chords and strong vocals of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
Meilleur has a deep, authoritative voice, securely echoing the original artist, while putting his distinctive spin on the tunes.
Since this was an Elton John night, there was no shortage of other hits – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” and “Honky Cat.” And those were just in the first half!
The second half purportedly featured a 17-member Augustana Choral Artists (led by Jon Hurty), and while they were literally on stage, I could not hear a peep out of them. I’m not sure whose fault is that – it must have been a mic or amplification problem.
Lead singer Jean Meilleur was generous in his deserving praise of the local choir, the QCSO and our associate conductor (and music director of the youth ensembles) Ernesto Estigarribia, including saying his tricky last name with effortless panache. The brass of the orchestra were especially tasty in “Honky Cat” and “Have Mercy on the Criminal.”
Meilleur specifically told us to listen for the choir in “Burn Down the Mission,” but I could not detect them (the alternating slow and fast sections of that song were electric, though). In the super fun encore, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” the audience got into singing along the refrain, and toward the end there was a section without accompaniment – perfect for the choir to shine, but I heard everyone but them.
For some reason, instead of the blazing guitar riffs in that urgent, furious rock song, the Pops version wisely featured the blazing brass of the orchestra. Other QCSO colors blended perfectly throughout the program.
At the start of the show, Meilleur also gave a shout-out to his first Davenport visit, saying he loved Redband Coffee’s liquid elixir and their fried egg sandwich.
“I was actually thinking I could come back here just for the coffee and the sandwich,” he said.
Fortunately, the persistent rains off and on earlier Saturday subsided later in the day, though the ground was still soggy for concertgoers who arrived when the gates at opened at 5 p.m. (that was pushed back from 4 p.m.).
“It was a pretty stressful day for everybody,” QCSO executive director Brian Baxter said before the concert started.
The orchestra also had bad weather before the special LeClaire Park Pops concert of “Hamilton” star Renee Elise Goldsberry in May 2021, but Baxter said they got through that.
The expected attendance for Saturday was at least 6,000, and the weather was perfect. The QCSO had rehearsal with the guest band only earlier in the day, for about 90 minutes, Baxter said.
While the popular fireworks capped the night (as Riverfront Pops has for 40 years), there were sonic fireworks during the entire wonderful crazy night.