Dr. John is in the temple testifying, attending to some 20,000 of the faithful who have convened for high mass. The flamboyant Dr. John - Elton, that is - and his merry band of acolytes, 170 concerts into a Farewell Yellow Brick Road spectacle which began on September 8th, 2018, are circling the globe and will conclude sometime in 2021 after more than 300 three-hour concerts. Whew, I am tired just writing that. Imagine how the 70-year old icon feels.
Well, the entertainer-activist-philanthropist, as gracious and humble a superstar as there ever was, illustrates with bravura why he is so universally loved. Not just for his panoply of unforgettable hit records but also because of his humane, may I say adorable, penchant for connecting with everyday people. He thanks us, every one of us, from deep inside for all the Lp’s, 45’s, 8-tracks, cassettes, Cd’s, merchandise and, of course, concert tickets we have bought to support him for 50 (fifty!) years.
And five decades after Aretha Franklin serendipitously recorded Border Song in 1970, confirming to him and his lyricist Bernie Taupin that they possessed that special something, and launched him like a Rocket Man, he and his ensemble are still rocking and rollicking with an enthusiasm and joy which is astonishing.
In what sounds almost like an apology, he jokes that he hopes what we see on the big screens and, more importantly, what we feel from the stage, is satisfactory. He needn’t be concerned, though, because even in the upper balconies in the very back rows of seats in the arena, at least 50 yards high off the ground and 150 yards from the stage, fans are whooping, standing, singing along, even crying during some of the songs (especially with the intimate footage of Marilyn Monroe on Candle In The Wind).
The sound system is marvelous. Even from that distance, you can close your eyes, listen and feel like you are in a small club. Meanwhile, the mischievous maestro is healing and wheeling and dealing three-hours of hit after hit after hit - rockers, ballads, tearjerkers, political statements, odes, confessionals - even weaving in a few lesser-known but no less impactful compositions like Indian Sunset and All The Young Girls Love Alice.
Celebrating 50 years of recording and touring, Elton really has nothing left to prove. Then why and how is he playing with a conviction and ferocity, not to mention playfulness, that belie his 70 years? Well, he knows he is fortunate (blessed, for certain) and one last time he is compelled to reciprocate the love and appreciation which has been bestowed upon him. To share that magic one last time.
After every song, he stands, points to the crowd in every direction, cajoles them to cheer louder, not just for him but for all of us - for the group hug he has always been all about.
In extending some of his classics like Levon and Burn Down The Mission, one truly cherishes his genius and sensitivity and dynamic imagination - that sonic gumbo strained through the churches of the African-American south, the road houses of Memphis and Muscle Shoals and the spunk of New Orleans - as he croons, growls and howls the tender and turbulent technicolor lyrics of the prodigious storyteller, Bernie Taupin.
For all his preposterous stunts and costumes - and tonight they are merely outrageous with two changes and a bathrobe for the encore - it is the music that we embrace as our own. With two percussionists, including the mad exhibitionist Ray Cooper, and the inclusion of a spirited organ, the band is a funky, bluesy, soulful unit which peaks and peaks and ‘repeaks’ with Elton, ever the showman, evoking the antics and music of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Ray Charles and the aforementioned Dr. John. (A special mention of drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, improbably and glowingly still integral members of the roadshow, the former since spring of 1970 and the latter since 1974.)
As for that unmistakable voice, could it better than it has ever been? It is. The ears don’t lie. Not only that, but from the canyon-like distance from where I am perched, I strain to spot background vocalists, specifically women. Is Elton cheating, employing those taped backing tracks some stars now use to enhance their live performances? Not so, for there are falsettos among his all-male aggregation providing mellifluous high-register harmonies. Hallelujah, how sweet the sound.
It is a humble, gracious person who stops his show, as if we are in an intimate piano bar, to address 20,000 people to inquire if we are okay. Clean and sober since 1990 after 16 years of suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and bulimia, he cares and implores people to ask for help, to seek counsel because it is out there. We will be surprised by how much love there is in this world, he guarantees.
Naturally, he encores with Your Song, really a gift, and the theme of the tour, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Facing the adoring mass of fans and waving triumphantly, he departs on a lift and disappears through a small black square door like a character in a fairy tale. In fact, it is a fable, one with a beautiful ending.
Rocket Man, Bennie, Captain Fantastic: Great to feel you again!