Elton John opened the latest and final North American leg of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park this past Friday night. Barring a freak one-off event or John breaking his vow that this is his final tour – which, despite similarly broken vows, feels unlikely for the 75-year-old singer/pianist — the show was his 52nd and last in the City of Brotherly Love. I was there, at my ninth Elton John concert.
My first was 40 years ago this month, at Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center. Elton John was the first rock star I loved, particularly after he released his instant-classic Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy the week of my tenth birthday in 1975. I was 17 years old when I first saw John live, as he toured behind his Jump Up! album, a record that’s been mostly forgotten, other than its two Top 40 hit singles, “Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)” and “Blue Eyes”.
From what I remember, Elton John played a fantastic show that hot July night, mixing up smash hits with recent tunes and diving deep for a choice handful of classic album cuts. He did make a massive mistake in not playing “Philadelphia Freedom”, earning a lusty chorus of boos from the Philly crowd when the lights went up with their city’s namesake song left unplayed. The absence of “Philadelphia Freedom” might have disappointed me, but the night did not.
Turns out, being 57 and seeing Elton John’s last show in Philadelphia was just as thrilling as being 17 and seeing him for the first time four decades ago. Maybe even more so – Elton’s still standing, and so am I, and that’s a good thing. Though, truth be told, both John and I did our fair share of sitting during the show.
John opened Friday’s show with the staggered introductory piano notes to “Bennie and the Jets”, the song that earned him a mid-1970s appearance on Soul Train. When he started singing, it was clear that, while John’s voice isn’t what it used to be, it’s well-preserved and he’s finding ways to make it work for him now. His vocals were strong throughout the show.
Following “Bennie”, John set things right with any disgruntled veterans of the ’82 Mann show by storming through “Philadelphia Freedom”. While I heard John play the song at every post-Mann show I attended, hearing it on Friday, with the actual skyline of Philadelphia as the backdrop from my seat, is something I’m going to happily carry with me for the rest of my life.
Equally strong, if not more so, was Elton’s piano playing. His solo turns were consistently well-executed with the closing moments of “Levon” being particularly exciting. John was joined during those moments by his longtime lead guitarist and John’s bandleader, Davey Johnstone, who stood behind John’s piano bench. John and Johnstone’s piano/guitar interplay closing out “Levon” was one of the show’s musical highlights.
In addition to Johnstone, the current band includes two other Elton John veterans, drummer Nigel Olsen and percussionist Ray Cooper. They are slick and professional but, aside from John, Johnstone, and Cooper, not particularly flashy. There not necessarily a lot of spontaneity either, but the musicians consistently found ways to bring something new and engaging to even the most familiar tunes in John’s catalog.
As for that catalog, nearly all of John’s biggest hits – “Crocodile Rock”, “Your Song”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, “Rocket Man”, among others – were well-represented in the setlist. At the same time, John found room for classic album tracks like “Take Me to the Pilot”, “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” and “All The Girls Love Alice”.
Missing from the setlist was any song that John has recorded since 1984, other than “Cold Heart”, the Dua Lipa duet that returned him to the Top 40 for the first time in decades. While I certainly didn’t miss the Lion King hits, I have enjoyed John’s artistic – if not commercial – resurgence in the 21st century, and I would have loved to hear a few of those tunes. But, as much as fans like me might love recent EJ albums, and as much as John might want to play a few of those tunes, they’d clearly be bathroom/beer runs for most of the crowd, and John knows this.
Fortunately, Elton John has unlocked a late-period enthusiasm for his classics that is infectious. He was clearly thrilled to be on stage, giving the audience exactly what they were looking for. While he kept onstage chit-chat to a minimum, John did speak to the crowd a few times, most notably to offer a heartfelt tribute to Aretha Franklin as an intro to “Border Song”, which the Queen of Soul famously covered not long after John’s original release.
Elton John closed his last Philadelphia show with a barrage of his biggest, gaudiest hits: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, “The Bitch Is Back”, “I’m Still Standing”, “Crocodile Rock”, and “Saturday Night’s Already for Fighting” in rapid succession. After briefly leaving the stage, John encored with “Cold Heart” (duetting with a video Dua Lipa), “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.
Two visual components of the show are worth noting: 1) Each song was accompanied by a video component played on large overhead screens. Some of these videos were great, some just OK, but overall, they added a dynamic element. 2) Whoever thought that the merch booths should sell light-up eyeglasses that created a light show among the crowd throughout the show is a genius. While a farewell show might have been a vehicle for many maudlin moments – and, yes, I got a little emotional during “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” – the overall feel of the concert was a life-affirming joy. Whatever else it may have been, Elton John’s last show in Philadelphia was fun. I was happy to be there for it.