In what is being billed as his final tour, the music legend focuses on the hits
Some endings can linger.
“The Return of the King,” the third and final film in director Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” packed a half-dozen would-be closing acts into its final hour, while the coda to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” stretches on so long that it has likely caused many a raised lighter to flicker and burn out when covered by bands in concert halls nationwide.
Now we can add Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour to the list. Billed as the final run of shows in John’s five-decade career, the tour kicked off in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in September, and will bring the singer and pianist around the world many times over, packing more than 300 dates into the next three years. Of course, John has never been celebrated for his understatement, so why would he think small with this supposed retirement run?
As expected, the musician eschewed modesty while performing for a sold-out audience at the Schottenstein Center on Friday. For nearly three hours, glitz and glam dominated the proceedings, surfacing in everything from the clothing selections — John’s earliest head-to-toe wardrobe included enough crystals to seed a small chandelier startup — to the high-gloss videos created by the likes of animator Alan Aldridge and photographer David LaChapelle that accompanied many of the songs.
Though the set list drew heavily from the pre-Ronald Reagan years — with a particular focus on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, from 1973 — some of John’s songs did take on more modern contexts.
“Indian Sunset,” a 1971 tune that details a Native American’s doomed battle with the US government, could have been interpreted as a loose commentary on current events, with people of color being slowly crushed due to “white man fears.” Played as a stripped-down but dramatic duet with longtime percussionist Ray Cooper, it also served as an unexpected left turn in what was an otherwise hits-heavy set.
Later in the evening, John offered more direct commentary on the global climate. “We seem to be mean, and we don’t put our arms around each other enough,” he said in introducing “Believe,” which centered on the curative power of love.
Elsewhere, John led his six-piece backing band through fan favorites such as “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” The latter steadily evolved into a fiery roadhouse boogie, with a long coda serving as a showcase for guitarist Davey Johnstone, who wielded a six-string that appeared to have been crafted from Dorothy’s ruby slippers — ideal for an event centered on yellow brick roads.
Less untethered than in his younger days, John carried himself like a seasoned pro, bowing cordially to the audience between songs and offering the odd commentary on his songwriting process and career, including his decision to retire from the road, which he chalked up to “a family and wonderful children … [who] need me now.” Varying shades emerged in the songs however, with the musician presenting himself as pugnacious at some turns (a swinging “The Bitch Is Back”), wounded in others (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”).
Musically, John traversed diverse terrain, swinging from elegiacal ballads (“Candle in the Wind”) to more loose-limbed turns steeped in early rock ’n’ roll (“Crocodile Rock”). He even dabbled in gospel on the soulful “Border Song,” which he performed alone at his piano, and, on “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” he waded gently into shallow prog-rock waters.
John, whose voice has deepened and thickened with time, radiated youthful energy on a defiant “I’m Still Standing.” When he released the song in 1985, it seemed fitting, if premature. Here, more than three decades on, it felt earned.
“Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” played in quick succession during the encore, hit like an extended bow for a musician saying a last farewell (a feel certainly heightened by the chronological photo montage of John that accompanied the latter). Similar themes colored “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which unfolded as a tender, graceful plea for just a bit more time in the daylight before the darkness overtakes.
This isn’t the first time John announced his retirement from the road. During a 1977 show in London he told the crowd, “I’ve made a decision tonight that this is going to be the last show.” Two years later, he resumed touring. This time around, however, the decision seems more likely to stick, considering John’s advanced age (he’ll be 73 when the tour visits Paris, France, in Oct. 2020) and his expressed desire to be there for his children. On this night, however, he appeared content to keep the houselights down, lingering on those final notes for just a little bit longer.