If you happen to be a rock star, I highly recommend living past 70. It looks like a blast.
Every legendary elder I’ve caught live in recent years has performed with nothing less than assured silvery grace (even Billy Joel has chilled out), and why not? You’ve outlived the drive to prove yourself in youth, the exhausting hedonistic drama of peak stardom, the impossible middle-aged pressure to recapture your past glory, the late-career cash-ins of going through the motions. From here on you get to look back on your accomplishments from the appreciative distance of old age while taking deserved victory laps.
But if Elton John wasn’t exactly sprinting at Target Center last night, the cherished pop institution kept up a more competitive pace than any victory lap demands. John, who’ll turn 72 next month, played for nearly three hours, a 24-song set he’ll reprise at the same arena again tonight as part of a farewell tour that started last September and stretches till the end of 2020. Elton might have meant it when he said, "I've had enough applause to last a thousand lifetimes," but he’s clearly in no hurry to say goodbye to a career that has been, as he called it, “a mind fuck.”
The darting vocal acrobatics of “Bennie and the Jets” started the night, that weirdly beguiling track driven as ever by a beat that’s paradoxically so stiff it’s funky. (It’s still a trip to watch the dancers on Soul Train do their best find its groove as Elton, the show’s first white performer in 1975, sits among them outfitted like a leprechaun pimp.) This led into the self-explanatory hard-rock stomp “All the Girls Love Alice,” one of a few album tracks Elton peppered through the evening to remind us he wasn’t just a prolific pop hitmaker in his prime, but had straddled the worlds of ostentatiously meaningful album rock and supposedly disposable AM radio pop. The irony, of course, is that the pop has proven itself so much more durable.
Much was made in the ’70s of the assembly-line division of labor that Elton and his writing partner Bernie Taupin employed—Taupin wrote the lyrics, John set them to music. But maybe more importantly, Bernie also allowed Elton to outsource his music’s pretentiousness. Read the printed lyrics on your old gatefold LPs and you’ll occasionally encounter a vision as grandiose as Don Henley mythopoeticizing his coke habit or Roger Waters bricking himself up into epic alienation. With lyrics befitting a serious rock star all accounted for, Elton was free to remind us this whole shebang was just the latest subset of showbiz, a wacky little guy dressed in a beaded Dodgers uniform or leaping hyperactively, barechested in novelty specs and suspenders. I mean, Jackson Browne would never.
As a nod to his composite rock auteur side, John has made a point of performing the album track “Indian Sunset” each night on this tour. It’s a well-meaning young British man’s attempt to address of the plight of Native Americans that gives percussionist Ray Cooper an opportunity to dramatically brandish his mallets. It brings the cinematic sweep that Elton, as much as anyone, made a requirement of the ’70s arena rock show. And I couldn’t hum it for you if you paid me. In the same vein, but more thrilling, was “Funeral for a Friend,” the synthesizer pompfest that would later get knocked up by Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” and gave birth to Guns N’ Roses. The jam that prolonged “Levon” was intermittently successful—if anyone in the room still got stoned, this was the time to light up. And if anyone in the room was of an age where it is no longer customary to wait three hours between pees (and we pretty much all were), that option was out there too.
Most of the arrangements were far more dynamic and engaging. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” had a brisk but easy-rolling New Orleans flavor, and a nice interplay between piano and longtime bandleader Davey Johnstone’s acoustic guitar provided a coda to “Rocket Man.” But if you thought the show was too damn loud it’s not because you were too damn old—the booming mix often drowned out the subtleties. Elton John may want three percussionists, including Cooper and drummer Nigel Olsson (who’s been with him from day one), but Elton John does not need three percussionists.
Also loud, but in a more fitting way, were Elton’s outfits, which have, for years now, been less flamboyant than in his heyday but still offer more flash than most septuagenarians, even the famous ones. He began the night in ruffled cuffs and a gold-piped blue tailcoat with pink lapels, like the maître d' at a posh space station, then mid-set changed into a blazer with the flowered pattern of a discarded sofa and dynamite pink slacks. On both occasions, of course, the eyeglasses matched.
The concert peaked at the precisely correct moment, with the four-song set of rockers that brought the main set to a close. If the ’70s were a decade-long trash bin of kitschy ’50s nostalgia, what set “Crocodile Rock” apart was how John instead cherished ’50s rock ’n’ roll nostalgia as camp, which a lot of ’50s rock ’n’ roll was to begin with. Similarly, “The Bitch Is Back” and “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” camped up the hard rock of the Stones and the Who just as those bands were edging toward parody. Sandwich in “I’m Still Standing,” which sounds more assured and less defensive than it did when Elton was pushing 40, and you’ve got a winning burst to the finish line.
Worth noting: Elton John’s classics aren’t just from the ’70s—they’re from exactly one-half of the ’70s. That’s hardly to underplay his chart longevity—for the last three decades of the 20th century, he’d never go three years without a top 10 hit in the U.S. But aside from three hits that marked his commercial comeback in ’83-’84, and a ’90s cut, “Believe,” that served to soundtrack a commercial for John’s worthy charitable work in AIDS treatment and prevention, everything else in a show touted as a 50-year celebration was from a specific, prolific eight-album period. Beginning with “Your Song” in late 1970 and ending with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” in the summer of ’75, John released 18 singles; he played 14 of them last night, skipping only his Christmas song, his Beatles cover, something called “Friends” that I know only from Wikipedia, and “Honky Cat,” which I’d have preferred to one or two of the ballads that thousands of people would have gone home disappointed if he skipped.
Because, come on. Elton John’s a rock ’n’ roller sure, but he wouldn’t have made it to a golden anniversary tour without the slow stuff, which comes at you unflaggingly big, ripe, and flourishing a melodic ingenuity that makes the hackwork of his soft-rock ’70s contemporaries and their megapop descendants of today sound like barely expedient sketches. Personally, I love “Daniel” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” still find the wan tenderness of “Tiny Dancer” and “Candle in the Wind” slightly patronizing, but recognize them all as classics. John played them with care, an acknowledgment of how much they’ve come to mean to everyone present, even me.
And of course, the night closed with an encore of two ballads, and two of his best. The deliberately casual lyric of “Your Song” demands that John pretend he’s thinking its images up on the spot each time he performs it, a spontaneity he’s been faking brilliantly for 49 years. And then, the inevitable “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a kept bumpkin’s freedom song, with John, as ever, singing some of Taupin’s bitchiest lyrics in a tone that’s triumphant yet wistful. As the song climaxed, Elton John ditched the robe he’d been wearing to reveal one of his now-favored track suits, boarded a contraption reminiscent of a Stair Lift, and was transported up into a starry backdrop, ready to descend to earth again tonight.
See our full slideshow from last night's concert here.
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