Burning Out His Fuse Up Here With Everyone: Make no mistake, Elton John is a showman. Ever since he first toured in 1970 behind his eponymous sophomore album, he’s been a force to reckon with on stage. His countless costume changes, buoyant personality, and all-too-contagious energy has brought smiles, tears, and hope to millions upon millions of fans worldwide. Whether he’s strolling down the good ol’ Yellow Brick Road or roaring one of his half dozen hits from Pride Rock, John has forever been a magnanimous presence, affecting multiple generations and bringing together people in a way that few rock stars ever do or ever will. We don’t need to revisit the Eminem collaboration, but it’s at the very least worth mentioning.
All of this is to emphasize what a great deal it is to see the legendary icon bid farewell from the very place that created him. Sure, he and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin spent most of the late ’60s making a name for themselves by writing music for Dick James’ DJM Records, but it was the stage that truly turned Reginald Kenneth Dwight into Sir Elton John. He’s always been at home up there, turning his legendary concept albums and timeless piano ballads into even more palpable experiences, and to see him wave goodbye is a devastating blow not only for the music industry but for fans everywhere. Nevertheless, that’s what he’s doing with his three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour.
“My priorities have changed in my life,” John explained to Anderson Cooper back in January upon the tour’s announcement. “My priorities now are my children, my husband, my family. I thought the time is right to say thank you to my fans and say goodbye.” He’s not wrong. Over the years, the guy’s led nearly 50 tours, hosted two separate Las Vegas residencies (both of which have taken up much of the 21st century), headlined dozens of music festivals (including Bonnaroo), and been involved in six major musicals. So, at 71, if he wants to retire, why not? As he graciously told Chicago’s United Center on Friday night, “I would like to thank you, and say to you, that I will miss you a great deal, but I’ve had enough applause over all those years to keep me for the rest of my life and beyond.”
Again, he’s not wrong.
Taking the Stage: If you’re a legend, you got hits, and John has hits for days. In fact, you might say he’s got a whole yellow brick roa–okay, that’s enough. Point is, John doesn’t just wave goodbye on this tour, he also says hello with a big ol’ bear hug, bringing good vibrations with a range of classics, two that could easily close out the show. “Bennie and the Jets”, “All the Girls Love Alice”, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”, “Border Song”, and “Tiny Dancer” tear down the proverbial curtain and kick off the night with one spectacle after another. By then, if you’re not feeling the urge to plop down 30 bucks for a pair of light-up heart shades and sing along, then you’re a soulless bastard that has no reason to be at an Elton John show. Get out.
I’ve Heard of Elton John, But Elton Jam?! No kidding. If anyone heading into this tour had any hesitations about John’s endurance as a performer, particularly following last year’s health scare, his sprawling, flavorful performance of “Levon” put those doubts to rest. The Madman Across the Water epic wrenched the youth out of the singer, who spent the majority of the song pounding his piano and delivering one of his strongest vocal performances of the night. There was so much happening on stage, but all of it felt unified, even when guitarist Davey Johnstone casually welded in the riff of The Beatles’ “Daytripper” or when percussionist Ray Cooper tossed some bongos into the mix. Oh, John was in heaven by then. Eh, we all were.
“If I left out any songs that were your favorite, I truly grovel at your feet.” Well, now that you mention it…
Umm, More Like Skelton John: Since we’re less than a week removed from Halloween, it was fun to see John turn the United Center into Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Shortly after he made everyone cry their eyes out to memories of Marilyn Monroe with an emotional performance of “Candle in the Wind”, the entire arena filled up with smoke and fog, all of which was accented by thunder, digital candles, and purple hues. Of course, this spooky table-setting was reserved for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road opener “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, a song that clocks in around 11 minutes on record, but went by like a gasp on stage, namely because it’s such a goddam rollercoaster. John certainly flexed his musical muscles for this moment, and at the very least, the guy sauntering around the arena as David S. Pumpkins was thrilled.
Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’: As a showman, John has to tell stories on stage, most of them he regurgitates night after night, something he’s probably used to by now given his two Vegas residencies. (Christ, could you even imagine the repetition?) More often than not, though, these charming stories feel scripted — see: Paul McCartney telling the same Clapton tale again and again and again — only John’s visit in Chicago was markedly different. “In 1990, I decided to get sober and clean,” he told his Chicago fans before rolling into “Believe”. “And I decided to get sober and clean in Chicago.” This is true. Two months after his emotional Sleeping with the Past Tour, John checked into Parkside Lutheran Hospital, where he defeated his drug and alcohol addiction, staying off the road for a good two years. “This is where my life turned around,” he gratefully admitted, “and I put my life back into balance.” The applause was deafening.
Friday Night’s Alright (For Dancing): In what was either brilliant sequencing (most likely) or a wonderful coincidence (hearly), John leapt from the cathartic release of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” into a relentless dance party, grooving from “The Bitch Is Back” to “I’m Still Standing” to “Crocodile Rock” and finally to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. For nearly 20 minutes, John had the crowd bouncing as if they had suddenly been dropped into the ending of an ’80s movie (think: Dirty Dancing or the pre-Van Halen section of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future). “I’m Still Standing”, in particular, was a left-field bop, sending this writer into a coughing fit as he struggled to breathe following a week-long battle with the flu bug, courtesy of three moron Midwesterners who refused to cover their mouths on the goddamn airplane. :huffs:: ::puffs:: I digress.
That One Song: You could make the case for any number of songs on the 24-song setlist, but for me, there was nothing more hard-hitting and soul-embalming than hearing John belt out the final coda to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”. Everyone has “their song” with any artist, and this one has always been mine, serving as a life raft for a time when I absolutely wanted to just let go from everything. Without getting into specifics, it was a moment when I felt lost in this world, a time when I just didn’t belong, and when I knew the world didn’t want me.
But, personal bias aside, the song says everything about John’s own relationship to his audience, and what this tour means to his legacy. He’s a populist artist in the most positive sense, a rambunctious icon for those yearning to be rambunctious, and his soulful ballads have long kept people from teetering off the edge. In that sense, he’s saved many lives over many nights — certainly not just mine — and hearing that with thousands of people, I got this emotional feeling that I wasn’t alone as I fought back tears and tried to ignore the guy behind me imploring I sit down.
No way, no how, never again.
But What About “Rocket Man”?
And now, a final goodbye…
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
Believe (Prefaced by Elton John thanking Chicago for helping him get sober)
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