On the scene: He rocks out to Lorde -- and more reasons why Elton John is awesome

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Image Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

I really loved the heyday of VH1 Storytellers in the late ’90s. Sure, it had its slow moments, but when it was on, it was on — hearing Adam Durtiz talk about who Mr. Jones really is or watching Lenny Kravitz talk about his hot chick drummer was always a treat.

So I was pleasantly surprised last night at a small event at USC where Sir Elton John himself turned what was billed as a small showcase of new songs and an introduction by mega-producer T-Bone Burnett into a full-on concert and storytelling extravaganza.

John opened the night with older tracks like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Levon,” closing out the first part of the night with “Your Song,” which he said he knew when he first got the lyrics from collaborator Bernie Taupin that “I’d better not mess this one up.” The evening continued with a Q&A and a preview of songs from his new album, The Diving Board (produced by Burnett). While he joked that everyone gets up to pee when new songs are trotted out, no one in the packed auditorium moved a muscle. He closed out the evening with more classics performed with incredible energy and exuberance, wrapping with an aching, soulful rendition of “Rocket Man.”

I’ve always liked Elton John, but in a “my mom had the vinyl and I love Almost Famous and, sure, I know all the words to ‘Benny and the Jets’” kind of a way, not in a “he’s a musical genius” kind of way. But watching him jam on the piano in a signature sparkly black suit backed by the USC orchestra and witnessing the pure joy he had playing for a group of college students (who were on their feet and dancing by the middle of the show) made me a convert.

Below, a few highlights of the night and tidbits we learned during the Q&A with the Grammy Foundation’s Scott Goldman about why Sir Elton is still rockin’ it at 66.

+ He’s clearly having a blast being, well, Elton John on his new album
“This record is a record by a 66-year-old man — it’s not by a 26-year-old guy who made ‘Rocket Man.’ It’s mature songs and songs that are reflective. As you get older, you change. I haven’t been on the radio, and rightly so, because it’s other people’s turn — but I’m at an age where I can do what I want.”

+ He makes a piano sound like an electric guitar.
“I always wanted to be a guitarist — you can smash it up, you can set fire to it. But you try to kick that [pointing to the piano beside him], you get a broken leg. So you crawl up on it or you jump on top of it, but in the end, you just sit down and play it!”

“I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lewis play the piano and it changed my life. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to beat the sh-t out of the piano.”

+ Chris Martin calls him Reginald
“But I love him so much I don’t mind!”

+ He jams to Queens of the Stone Age — even when he’s not making music with them
“I listen to new music because new artists inspire me. There’s an energy that you [the audience of USC students] have that’s called youth that can change the world. I have great faith in the young.”

“I don’t go home and listen to Frank Sinatra, but I love Frank Sinatra. I go home and listen to Queens of the Stone Age or I listen to [British dance group] Disclosure.”

+He’s into lots of new artists. Like Lorde
“Her voice is a little synth drum, synth bass, and simplicity. And that gives me far more pleasure than listening to a Muddy Waters track. How the hell at 16 can you do that?”

+ And Hanni El Khatib
“Hanni El Khatib has an album called Hole in the Dirt that’s produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and it roars. It’s one of the greatest rock records in a long long time. It rocks.”

John’s enthusiasm for new artists was pervasive — Goldman joked that they’d have to have a whole separate event for him to give new music recommendations.

Elton John’s new album, The Diving Board, was produced by T-Bone Burnett and will be released Sept. 24. It is his first solo record since 2006′s The Captain & the Kid and the 30th solo album of his career.

Setlist:
“Sixty Years On”
“The Greatest Discovery”
“Philadelphia Freedom”
“Tiny Dancer”
“Levon”
“Your Song”

“Oscar Wilde Gets Out”
“I Can’t Stay Alone Tonight”
“New Fever Waltz”
“Mexican Vacation”
“Home Again”

“The Bitch Is Back”
“Benny and the Jets”
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
“I’m Still Standing”
“Rocket Man”

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