When you sell out Madison Square Garden 70 times in nearly 45 years, you must be doing something right. And when that 70th show is also, by random coincidence, the 70th date on your farewell tour — and maybe possibly your last show at the storied venue — chances are good that it’s going to be a pretty special night.
Elton John is playing himself off with the almost comically long “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” — with more than 300 shows through 2021, it’s one of the most extensive retirement tours in history — so even though he’s already played two and a half months’ worth of gigs to around 1.1 million people, he’s just getting warmed up. And while the retrospective nature of the show is designed to tug at the heartstrings of those who grew up on his music — which, based on the people in the row ahead of us, ranged from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe to a woman my seatmate/sister swore was Katie Couric, and included many people attending with their children — it’s also designed in no small part to tug at his own as well.
Yet even he admitted this night was exceptional. During one of his many long but not over-long chats to the crowd between songs, he wept as he spoke of his gratitude toward his American fans, his love for New York and particularly this venue, where John Lennon joined him onstage in 1974 (for the former Beatle’s last-ever public performance) and which he called “my favorite place to play in the whole wide world.”
But you don’t get to 70 sellouts on gratitude alone, and Elton John’s set on this tour is a beautifully curated trip through his golden era (i.e. the setlist is almost entirely from the early/mid-1970s, with a smattering of the ‘80s). He drops in enough deep cuts to keep the musicians and veteran fans on their toes (the second song he played was the 1973 deep cut “All the Girls Love Alice”), yet the set was so packed with hits that he’d reeled off “Bennie and the Jets,” “Tiny Dancer,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Border Song” and “Philadelphia Freedom” in the first half hour, and he’d barely scraped the surface. (See the full setlist below.)
Elton was in top form, particularly for a 71-year-old man who’s playing three-hour sets several nights a week. His voice is deeper than on the classic records and he doesn’t even try to hit the falsetto notes, but his energy level is high, he’s smiling and mugging and pointing at the crowd throughout the entire show, and he takes a bow after nearly every single song, soaking up the cheers in a way that emanates gratitude far more than ego.
Indeed, there is a graciousness about him that has the language of substance-abuse recovery, but with an unusual warmth. He thanked virtually everybody, and effusively: He thanked “the best band I’ve ever played with,” three of whom, guitarist/bandleader Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper, have been with him for the better part of 45 years. He thanked Bernie Taupin, his lyricist of half a century, and described their writing technique: Taupin hands him lyrics, which John takes away and sits alone at the piano, trying to imagine the title and lyrics as a film, and then the song comes. “We have never, ever written a song in the same room,” he said, “which is probably why we’ve lasted 50 years.” He thanked his husband, David Furnish, their children, the people who work at the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which was inspired by his desire to give back after his own recovery from substance abuse — “It took me 16 years to say these three words: ‘I need help’” — and over 27 years has raised more than $400 million.
He also thanked everyone who’s ever bought a record — “or a CD or an 8-track (laughs) or (wincing) a cassette, cassettes were the worst!” — or a ticket or a piece of merchandise. “I’ve had the most incredible life, I’m so lucky and so grateful,” he said, singling out the people who have attended his concerts over the decades, because “I love all of it, but the greatest feeling in the world is playing a song for another human being and they react.”
And 45 years into his performing career, he remains an absolute master at working a crowd, with eye contact, his familiar mugging and arm-waving and mouth-wide-open faces and “Come on!” exhortations. His elaborate outfits of yore have long since given way to suits with long tails and lots of glittery embellishments; he changed outfits four times and finished the set in a housecoat.
But perhaps most of all, he remains an astonishing pianist, one of the best in rock history. Equal parts Little Richard, boogie-woogie and gospel, his rare ability to play one melody while singing another is part of the secret sauce of his songwriting, but it’s also a marvel to behold: He’s been playing these songs for so long that at times he’s practically soloing while he’s singing, and several tracks closed with long vamps that showed off his barrelhouse chops and his ability to wander far from the original melody while still remaining in it.
The show wasn’t perfect: the otherwise masterful band stumbled on “Love Lies Bleeding,” and we probably could have lived without, say, “Sad Songs Say So Much.” But certainly no one in the crowd was complaining — and while there are approximately 230 shows remaining over the next two-plus years, it’s likely that Elton John’s 70th Madison Square Garden concert will remain one of the most special.
Setlist (via Setlist.fm)
Bennie and the Jets
All the Girls Love Alice
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)
Take Me to the Pilot
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Candle in the Wind
Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Burn Down the Mission
Sad Songs (Say So Much)
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
The Bitch Is Back
I’m Still Standing
Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road