John, his lyric writing partner Bernie Taupin and his electrifying and loyal band have given fans so much. So much music and melody. So much vulnerability and empathy. So much to embrace.
Of course there is sadness in anything dubbed a “farewell” tour, and even though John is taking three years to lap the globe, it seems as if this is a true finale.
Hearing his voice waver slightly toward the end of Friday’s epic performance at State Farm Arena as he said while seated at his piano, “I will miss you all so much, but I’ve had enough applause for a million, million years,” even the toughest cynic would recognize the truthfulness in his intention.
But while the night ends with a moment of deep poignancy – of course the gorgeous and reflective “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and its visual counterpart are involved – what comes before it for more than 2 ½-hours is a mighty wallop of old-fashioned rock stardom.
The stage is crafted as a picture frame with carved images of album covers, Ryan White, “Aida” and other people and projects central to John’s remarkable career bordering a massive video screen.
It is simple elegance designed to spotlight what now matters most to John – the music.
The Grammy-winning megastar is playing a second show in his occasional hometown Saturday (heed the traffic warnings), and he made several references to his affection for the city during Friday's 24-song performance.
The fact that the singer-pianist even crept on stage at 8:10 p.m. to plink the opening notes of "Bennie and the Jets" was reason to cheer. Earlier this week, he canceled a pair of concerts in Florida due to an ear infection, an ailment that still agitated him throughout the night as he frequently pinched his nose to clear his ears and noted that he couldn't hear himself.
“I pray it’s coming out all right,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to miss tonight.”
John sounded robust as he and his six phenomenal band members – all clad in matching black suits while ever-dapper drummer Nigel Olsson added a pocket square to complement his drumming gloves and headphones – stormed through the type of catalog that simply doesn’t exist outside of John’s generation.
He infused “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” with flexible vocal intonations, told a sweet story about Aretha Franklin recording “Border Song,” allowed us to revel in the mellifluousness of “Tiny Dancer” and re-created the buoyancy of “Philadelphia Freedom” with ace Davey Johnstone providing the indelible guitar jangle.
The houselights popped up between most songs, and the ability to see the loving throng of people fueled John as he, too, popped up, often slamming the lid of his piano in excitement and yelling, “All right!” from behind his bejeweled glasses.
A few times, he toddled across the stage to wave and smile at fans and, ear irritation aside, appeared fully absorbed in the joy of performing.
He flashed a gap-toothed grin during the boogie swing of “Take Me to the Pilot” and even during the melancholy “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” forged a deep connection with his lyrical delivery.
Of the numerous reminders of the musical prowess of John and his band – Olsson, Johnstone, percussionist John Mahon, bassist Matt Bissonette, keyboardist (and Atlanta native) Kim Bullard and inimitable percussionist Ray Cooper – a trio of moments deserve entombment in the memory vault.
John’s piano solo during the coda of “Rocket Man” mesmerized with its nimbleness and his instinctual progressions; the explosive jam during “Levon” – Johnstone ripping his most finger-blistering solo of the night, Cooper unleashing his loveable crazy on the congas – left the sold-out crowd and John needing to pause for a breath; and the visual and musical feast that accompanied “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” – dry ice gushing from the stage, the percussionists’ rhythmic jousting – simply awed.
There is so much musical vitality still within John – evidenced Friday night in his anthem of resolve, “I’m Still Standing,” and the barroom brawler, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” – that it’s still a bit difficult to fathom his (eventual) retirement.
But even as he turns to walk down that yellow brick road, remember that we got to say goodbye on his terms – and ours.
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