Everything has turned to Elton John lately. There are those Snickers rap battle commercials, his appearance on Nile Rodgers’ new Chic album, and the daily news of an autobiographical film for 2019. An icon of multi-platinum pop, Broadway song, LGBTQ rights and more, when a showman like John announces a goodbye tour after more than five decades in the biz — a three-year, 300-plus show “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” trek that truly kicked off Tuesday night (Sept. 11) in Philadelphia — people pay attention.
Even in today’s endless nostalgia worship, Elton John defies categorization. He was at one time a classic rock show-off followed by a masked art-pop wonder. And, though born in the U.K., he has long dug deep into the sound and psyche of America with its rural roots in the gospel South, and its uptown relationships to boogie-woogie, blues and R&B, his Californian harmonies, his country twang, and — of course — longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin’s Beat poet’s relationship to the prairies, mountains and our endless vistas.
And so the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” show at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center was visually and sonically arresting in every way. John, the vocalist, pounced with raggedly soulful might and clarity on the up-tempo cuts, and with pensive, bruised nuance on the ballads. As a pianist, he stretched out in giddily playful solos while bouncing off longtime bandmates and harmony vocalists (drummer Nigel Olsson, glam rocking guitarist Davey Johnstone and vividly animated percussionist Ray Cooper).
If you were hoping that John would do more costume changes than the three made (pink and black military brocade tux with red rhinestone glasses, a rose-covered suit with green rhinestone specs, a gorgeous floor-length robe with heart glasses), you only had to stare at the screen behind him for more glistening Elton images than the human retina could handle. And at 24 songs and nearly three hours in length – including the rarely played dark, spare suite “Indian Sunset — John’s set list was encyclopedically exhaustive and inclusive.
Having attended dozens of John shows in the past, this seemed to be the most personal, personable and emotive of his gigs. For a guy always pleased to announce that “The Bitch is Back,” he was pretty sweet. Maybe it’s because John is semi-retiring from the road to maintain a family with his husband (David Furnish, who was in attendance and decked out in casual Gucci, Elton’s tour sponsor). Maybe it was because Taupin, with whom he’s shared this half-century-long trip, was also in the house (a rare east coast appearance, the award-winning songwriter was spotted backstage wrestling with a corkscrew). Or maybe it was John coming to terms with saying goodbye to these songs and the fans “who have always been there, buying the singles, and the 8-tracks.” No matter, this show found Elton John’s emotional output at an all-time high.
From the moment the stadium’s lights pounded in time with the opening number’s hammered piano line (“Bennie & the Jets”), to the last oxygenated breath of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” this greatest hits “revue,” as it were, was one highlight after another.
While John’s baritone voice enhanced the elegant melody lines and soulful grace notes of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Olsson and Johnstone luxuriated in the airy harmony vocals that were a signature of Elton’s singles since the days of “Honky Chateau.”
Before John got to his impassioned funky reading of “Border Song,” he talked about how hearing that Aretha Franklin would record that tune, “blew my mind.” After said “Song,” Elton & Co. waltzed into an elongated “Tiny Dancer,” complete with those aforementioned Taupin vistas, and an elegant slide into its bridge, then a high-pitched chorus that was goose-bump inducing. While “Indian Sunset” was dramatic and multi-moody, “Take Me to the Pilot” was rich and angsty, as if that same pilot owed Elton money.
By the time Elton got to a zealously playful take on ”Levon,” he was wagging his tongue at the first rows, and waving his hands in the air when he wasn’t pounding out a boogie-woogie solo worthy of Professor Longhair. Much of the gospel-inflected “Burn Down the Mission” had a similar physicality to it, as its melody grew incrementally higher with each verse. When Elton and his mob hit the main set’s last four tracks – “The Bitch is Back,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” – it felt like a hard, fast race to the finish.
Of course, the personal history of John the creator and crusader was also front-and-center — highlighted on the video screens throughout the night — and included John’s accomplishments as an AIDS benefactor. But all the glitz and glamour could not distract your gaze from the main event onstage. Bravo to that.