Madison Square Garden, New York, October 18 2018
In January, five blocks away from Madison Square Garden at New York’s Gotham Hall, Elton John appeared in a typically dazzling outfit in front of a room full of media to announce he was quitting touring. Then about to turn 71, he had decided he’d had his fill and wanted to spend more time at home with his two young children. But first, he would go on a goodbye tour around the world to thank his fans for their support over the years.
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After kicking things off in Allentown, PA in September, the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour finally arrives in New York tonight (October 18) for the first of nine currently announced dates in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island. “We are so happy to be back in my favourite venue in the whole world,” Elton tells the crowd after an energetic opener of ‘Bennie And The Jets’ and ‘All The Girls Love Alice’. He immediately looks like he’s having the time of his life, turning to face the audience mid-song, a “wow!” expression on his face as his fingers dance across the keys. But he has a warning for us, too. “I’ve probably left some of your favourites off so please forgive me,” he explains.
This is not a greatest hits set in terms of what the casual Elton fan might pick. Instead, it’s a cross-section of a great artist’s career; a collection of some of his favourites from his six decades in the business. There are plenty of classics – ‘Tiny Dancer’ crops up early on and still possesses the Almost Famous effect of making you feel like you’re driving down a deserted American road, even when you’re in a packed arena. ‘Rocket Man’ begins with a countdown and the roar of takeoff, launching into a serene version that unites the whole venue. ‘Candle In The Wind’ sees Elton’s piano glide slowly across the stage as a recreation of Marilyn Monroe’s final photoshoot with Bert Stern plays on the big screen behind him.
But there are deeper cuts aplenty, too. Elton’s band all exit the stage bar percussionist Ray Cooper for ‘Indian Sunset’, a track about a Native American resisting against the US government. ‘Take Me To The Pilot, the 1970 b-side to ‘Your Song’, is a rolling, dynamic inclusion that’s accompanied by images of what looks like a 3D printer blueprint-cum-digital Jeff Koons impression of Elton’s head, its smooth lines filled in with lurid technicolour renderings.
After each, no matter the reaction from the crowd, the man of the hour rises from his piano stool, gently slams the lid of his instrument and basks in the applause that rings around the room. Sometimes he goes for a wander, gleefully waddling to the edges of the stage, beaming into the faces of the front rows as his jewel-encrusted glasses sparkle beneath the stage lights.
Unsurprisingly, Elton is in a reflective mood. There are montages during the likes of ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Crocodile Rock’ that show some of his highlights and the people of all kinds that he’s touched along the way. Between songs, he talks about everything from his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin (who is watching from the stands tonight), getting sober in 1990, and what he’s learnt as he’s aged.
“There’s an extraordinary power in compassion and love,” he says of the latter, ahead of ‘Believe’. He illustrates his point by recalling playing at a benefit for the victims of 9/11 at tonight’s venue. ‘They didn’t care what political party they were, what religion they were, what colour they were,” he explains. “They just came together and they embraced each other. What we have now in the world is a situation where we hardly ever talk to each other on opposing views and I find that really dispiriting. People spend way too much time on social media and not getting out there and spending time with other human beings. I really believe love is the cure for our sick world.”
Before the tour began, it was promised that this would be Elton as you’d never seen him before. If you’re used to going to big arena shows with grand production, you might be a left a little disappointed, but it is true to say that this is the most sophisticated, hi-tech show the star has ever put on. Largely, it consists of specially commissioned films showing on the big screen, framed by a path cobbled with bricks that are not yellow but gold, logos and imagery from throughout Elton’s career (The Lion King, his AIDS foundation, Soul Train) interspersed across it.
There are some more impressive moments, though. During ‘Burn Down The Mission’, flames engulf the grand piano, licking at the black wood and coming dangerously to Elton’s fingers as you watch on the screens. Look at the stage, however, and there’s no sign of fire. After ‘Candle In The Wind’, as our departing hero heads off for a quick costume change, the sound of wind, rain and thunder gusts around the room, and ominous clouds of dry ice roll out from the stage. When the band return, still half obscured by the manmade fog, they play the eerie, nightmarish synths of ‘Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’. The whole thing is perfectly in sync with the Halloween decorations that already adorn the city’s bars and stores.
After another break, Elton returns in a blue embroidered kimono and red heart-shaped glasses. He wraps things up with ‘Your Song’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, his piano once again floating to the other side of the stage during the latter. As it ends and he receives his 24th standing ovation of the night, he whips off the kimono to reveal a simple tracksuit underneath, his name spelt out on the back of the jacket in colourful gems. He waves and mounts a golden platform that transports him into a hole in the screen, like a stairlift carrying him gracefully off to retirement. Elton might not be done quite yet – his farewell tour doesn’t wrap up until 2021 – but his first round of goodbyes are stunning and satisfying.
Elton John played:
‘Bennie And The Jets’
‘All The Girls Love Alice’
‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’
‘Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)’
‘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’
‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’
‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’