By Ray Compton
May we make a suggestion to the booking agents for the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Butler’s Clowes Memorial Hall, the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds or other concert venues in Indiana?
Think about this. How would you like to reserve a concert that features both a Carmel High School graduate and Elton John?
Well, Almost Elton John.
And we truly mean Almost Elton John. That is the name of the Elton John tribute band unleashed by Carmel graduate Craig Meyer, who has transformed his musical and acting skills into one of the top Sir Elton performances in the United States.
“I never really thought about becoming a tribute artist,” said Meyer from his home in Atlanta, Ga. “I kind of thought being a tribute artist was like going to the elephant graveyards for entertainers. But I was wrong. We have people dancing in the aisles and having a great time.”
Indeed, the customers do. Complete with his Rocket Band, Meyer weaves his way through four costume changes and more than 20 songs during his two sets. The repertoire of songs includes the headliners performed by John since the 1970s.
“People really want to hear the hits,” said Meyer, who frequently covers favorites such as “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” but he will also drop in unheralded songs such as “Take Me to the Pilot.” “The best compliment that you receive is when someone says that you sound like the original storyteller. I think the performance really capture’s Elton’s singer-songwriter talents.”
Meyer’s skills — which have included stops on Broadway, in television and film, and in musical entertainment — unfolded in the Carmel High School performing arts programs when his family moved to the Midwest from Los Angeles in 1978. Meyer admits his life “shifted abruptly” when the California teenager left the West Coast.
“I didn’t know anybody in Carmel,” remembered Meyer, now 50, “and it was an adjustment. But I had a real theatrical experience at Carmel. We did so much. You learned theater, learned to build a set and so much more. I totally enjoyed my experiences at Carmel and in the performing arts programs.”
Meyer returned to Carmel last spring for a reunion of performing arts students. And he admits he would be thrilled to perform in central Indiana.
“It would be kind of like a hometown boy makes good experience,” said Meyer, who does more than 30 Almost Elton John tribute shows annually.
A return trip to Indiana would be another chapter in a typical long-and-winding road for performers. Meyer’s resume includes stops on Broadway, performing in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and on nationally touring productions that included “Cats” and “White Christmas.” He has toured with Barry Manilow and Frankie Valli, and he has also appeared on television shows such as “Will & Grace” and “General Hospital” and in the memorable films “Leathernecks” (George Clooney and Renee Zellweger), “ID Thief” (Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy) and “Joyful Noise” (Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton).
Ironically, a connection with Dolly Parton opened the tribute world for Meyer. One of his friends in Atlanta was Melody Knighton, a top tribute artist of Parton.
“She heard me sing a couple of Elton songs at a benefit show five years ago,” remembered Meyer. “She said if she closed her eyes, I sounded just like Elton. So I decided to give it a shot.”
Almost Elton John has quickly evolved into a full menu of performers and acts. After starting off with only track music, the second phase included bringing the Rocket Band onstage. The next step included having Meyer and the band performing together with community orchestras.
Now, another chapter has been added. Meyer has teamed up with longtime friend Donnie Kehr to do Piano Men: A Tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel. The performance in suburban Chicago was previewed in the “Chicago Sun-Times” in December.
“We do things that Billy Joel and Elton John did when they toured together,” said Meyer. “I finish Act 1 with some of Elton’s hits, and in the second act we both play grand pianos. We trade off verses. I play; he sings. He plays, and I sing.”
Meyer calls both icons “great storytellers.”
And both Joel and John are still fresh faces to the public. This is one of the keys in keeping tribute bands on the concert trail in Peoria, casinos and other musical halls.
“You have to find someone who is not oversaturated in the market but who still is someone people want to see,” said Meyer. “One of the tricks of a tribute band is being a performer whose songs people know and who they want to see.”
This includes dressing similar to the real artist. The Almost Elton John show includes Meyer wearing platform shoes and big glasses. However, missing is the duck costume that Elton would occasionally wear.
“Unless you are an Elton psycho, you don’t remember all of his costumes,” admitted the protege, who still puts together authentic looking outfits that John fans enjoy seeing.
Overall, Meyer hopes that the crowd fondly related to him and his tribute to the British performer.
“I revere the man,” said the 1981 Carmel graduate. “I never thought I would be doing this. The opportunity fell out of the sky. Now, I want to do whatever I can to introduce another generation to him.”
Including, perhaps, in Carmel or central Indiana.