When Sir Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” show kicked off at Chicago’s United Center Friday night with its titular album’s biggest hit single, “Bennie and the Jets,” one could immediately sense that we were in for a hell of a ride as John’s stubby little fingers (up-close view courtesy of the miniature camera mounted at the edge of his keyboard) pounded the song’s opening notes whilst the spotlight simultaneously illuminated his presence for the first time to loud cheers from the audience.
But few could have expected as complete (and as loud) a show from someone whose professional career spans 50 of his 71 years on earth and who, at times, provided a sonic experience like that of rockers less than half his age.
For instance there were the unexpected injections of floor-shaking, booming bass drum hits in the show’s second tune, the rollicking “All the Girls Love Alice,” which rippled through the arena like a sonic boom. At first the bass explosion appeared misplaced and unintentional, seemingly even catching Sir Elton by surprise with its intensity. Then it happened again, and again, reassuring us that it was all part of the plan.
It was after “Alice” that the rock and pop icon, whose stage entrance had been sudden and unheralded, spoke for the first time to the audience, thanking us early and apologizing in advance for possibly not picking our personal favorites for the limited (by Elton’s standards), 24-song set list. Acknowledging the difficulty of narrowing the list from dozens of candidates, many of them classics, Sir Elton said to those whose favorites were omitted, “I grovel at your feet.”
The apology, like most everything John said that night, seemed uncharacteristically genuine, offering a stark contrast to the diva-like persona that the flamboyant Captain Fantastic has served up for most of his nearly fifty years on stage.
That genuineness carried through to his personal tribute to the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, whom John referred to as “the greatest soul artist there ever has been” as he recalled the story (and his elation) of how she came to record his and Bernie Taupin’s composition “Border Song,” which he then performed.
Whatever difficulties Sir Elton had in choosing the songs for this gallop through his musical past seemed overstated considering the classics he did play. In fact, of the set’s 24 songs, all but four came from the 1970s, Elton’s most prolific period.
After “Border Song” there was the classic ballad “Tiny Dancer,” followed by his most soulful single “Philadelphia Freedom.” Both songs had interesting video backdrops playing on the huge screen behind Elton and his band, none of which featured EJ himself. For “Tiny Dancer,” he used unrelated images of everyday folk in everyday life, including a cop car in hot pursuit, a woman holding her infant, a skateboarding boy, another woman carrying an urn to the deceased’s ultimate resting place and a dreadlocked fella smoking what appeared to be weed, among other images… in other words, anything but the “Tiny Dancer” of which Elton sang, giving the song a more metaphorical feel.
For “Philadelphia Freedom,” more relevant images of colorful young dancers graced the large screen as Elton played a slightly sped-up version of the No. 1 tune. At times, the images recalled the Soul Train Line made famous by the TV show in the 1970s. The connection wasn’t lost on those who remembered that Elton was one of the first white performers to appear on Soul Train where he sang “Philadelphia Freedom” (and “Bennie and the Jets”) in 1975.
There were more pleasant surprises to come.
For instance, after “Freedom,” Sir Elton educated the crowd on how he and Taupin go about writing songs. First Taupin pens the lyrics, then he hands them to John who imagines the story, the tempo, and the genre of the music he creates. This insightful story was his lead-in to “Indian Sunset,” a tribute to native Americans from his 1971 Madman Across the Water album.
Next, Elton took us through more early hits, including classics “Rocket Man” and, from his self-titled first charted album in America (and second one overall), “Take Me To The Pilot.”
Then came “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” the lone hit single released from Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy.” It came with what was probably the most relevant video treatment of all, an animated video of Elton as Captain Fantastic, the titular character from the 1975 album, the first to ever début at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
That led to “Levon,” the 5-minute epic song (another from Madman) that Sir Elton and Co. surprisingly turned into an 11-minute jam session. Who knew that, of all the songs in EJ’s repertoire, it would be “Levon” that would be sped and slowed in tempo while percussionists banged on drums and bongos and guitarist Dave Johnstone threw in a Beatles “Day Tripper” rift to boot?
It laid to rest any doubt that Elton, whose piano ballads are among the best in popular music, could also rock hard with the best of them.
Following “Levon” was the third of six tracks played from Elton’s biggest studio album and the tour’s namesake, 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It was “Candle In The Wind,” the original version of which was never released as a single, that provided one of the night’s most emotional moments. As Elton and his piano moved on a track across the stage and video images of the ballad’s original inspiration Marilyn Monroe played in the background, one couldn’t help but also think of the song’s later subject, Princess Diana Of Wales, whose passing in 1997 led to a remake of “Candle” that became the biggest-selling single of all time.
But that was just the show’s first half.
Sir Elton kicked off the next half with his lone costume change (also very un-diva-like) and the medley of “Funeral For A Friend”/“Love Lies Bleeding,” an eleven-minute jam from Goodbye that EJ clipped in half – reversing the earlier treatment given to “Levon.” Then came the fiery “Burn Down The Mission,” followed by “Believe,” the 1995 power ballad preceded by the only monologue in which Elton spoke mainly about himself and his legacy.
It was during that speech that the singer spoke of his earlier substance abuse issues and how it was in Chicago nearly 30 years ago where he finally decided to enter rehab and sober up. It was also after coming clean that he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research since then.
Attributing those life-changing moments to the Windy City endeared him to our great town, and his telling of the story was yet one more genuine moment in a night full of them.
There were more treats, too, like his insightful introduction of the ambiguous ballad “Daniel” and the true meaning behind the song’s poignant lyrics (about a Vietnam veteran returning home), which Elton said was lost when the song’s last verse was omitted from the original version.
There was also “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” whose arrangement came across funkier than the original. It always baffled this writer how a song with such an uplifting melody could be titled “Sad Songs.” The tune is anything but that.
The night’s best ‘80s moment, however, came with “I’m Still Standing,” the aptly titled celebratory tune that got the best video treatment. As Sir Elton and his band performed the 1983 hit, video images of Elton’s 50-year career flashed behind them on stage. There were images of Elton as Captain Fantastic, Elton with the Muppets, Elton on the Simpsons, Elton with Cher, Elton with Queen Elizabeth, Elton on Soul Train, Elton in music videos, Elton onstage with Eminem, Elton with Bernie Taupin, Elton with his husband David Furnish, Elton and David with their two children, Elton with the Lion King, Elton at the Oscars…
You get the picture. Elton’s career is just that ubiquitous, and the “I’m Still Standing” video accompaniment couldn’t have told his story any better.
There was one moment that competed with it though.
When Sir Elton introduced his backing band, the names read like a Who’s Who from the British superstar’s past. They included Davey Johnstone and Ray Cooper who played on John’s early albums. Longtime friend and drummer Nigel Olsson, who played and recorded with the Elton John Band in the 1970s, was also on hand. Some may recall that Olsson also had his own top-40 hits in 1979.
If the return of those musicians most associated with Elton John’s early success didn’t provide the proper exclamation point to this career retrospective, nothing would.
About the only thing that might have been better is if Taupin himself had made a surprise stage visit. Of course, one can’t ask for everything.
Elton ended the night with the encore performances of his first big hit, “Your Song” and the tour’s namesake, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
By that time, we were satisfied and maybe a bit exhausted. It had been over two-and-a-half hours since John first plopped his fingers on his piano’s opening note to “Bennie and the Jets.”
But EJ had just given us what we came for: a chance to say goodbye to one of the biggest music legends there will ever be.
Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say “farewell until next time.” Sir Elton will return to Chicago this winter as the tour continues its three-year worldwide marathon run.
Whatever the proper salutation is, the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour is a must-see for anyone who is an Elton John fan.
Oh, and thank you, Elton, for the unforgettable experience and for uniting millions of us through your music and your humanity.
Elton John’s Set List for Chicago’s United Center on Friday, October 26, 2018:
- Bennie & the Jets
- All the Girls Love Alice
- I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
- Border Song
- Tiny Dancer
- Philadelphia Freedom
- Indian Sunset
- Rocket Man
- 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
- Crocodile Rock
- Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
- (Encore) Your Song
- (Encore) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road