For as much of Elton John’s career has not been about the ephemeral things, couture has made the man, to some degree. That was evident Thursday night at Dodger Stadium in an almost-show-closing montage of TV clips over the years showing Sir Elton in outfits both glamorous and ridiculous, from an 18th century powder wig to a duck costume. But no specific look sticks out in his iconography quite like the bejeweled Dodgers-wear he wore on stage at the team’s ballpark in 1975 (a moment memorable enough to have been recreated with a lot of digital help in the “Rocketman” biopic). The closest you could come to the culture getting so excited about a rocker in uniform is Linda Ronstadt in a Cub Scout outfit, but… nope, no comparison, really.
So when John said Friday that he wanted to wrap up his final North American tour in L.A. because his real U.S. path to success started with a run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour club in 1970, you might wonder if it might have as much to do with him fulfilling a deferred dream of his fans: the chance to see him back in Dodgers gear after all these years. He did make good on that inevitable promise Thursday — the first of three nights at the stadium — although he skipped actual field wear in favor of something more befitting a knight (or at least MLB upper management) than someone taking the field: a very fancy Dodgers robe.
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But if the robe inevitably made him look like someone who might be ready to retire for the night, there was nothing about the almost two-and-a-half hour performance that suggested a fellow about to actually retire, apart from the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” lettering atop the massive proscenium. This truly has been a long farewell — a sauntering one, even, given that the international outing began back in 2018 and won’t wrap up until next summer (with more European dates to follow in early 2023 following this weekend’s American touring swan song). As much as he’s taken his sweet time in leaving the road, though, Thursday’s show made it feel like he’s actually sprinting to the finish. This was John in top vigorous form, sounding and feeling like he’s ready for the next 50-some years — leaving the touring scene still at the top of his performing game, exiting because he wants to, not because he has to.
John’s show Thursday didn’t have any of the guests that are lined up for Sunday night’s tour finale, which will be streamed live on Disney+. The mystery remains unsolved as to what Brandi Carlile will join him for that night, although the world can presume that Kiki Dee’s billing means “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” will finally be added back into the set, and that Dua Lipa’s presence will not have John alone and singing to an otherwise pre-existing track of “Cold Heart,” as he did Thursday. Although the opening-night crowd might have had a tinge of FOMO without any of those promised cameos being spread across all three nights, even the most straightforward rendering of the tour didn’t suffer for starpower — at least not for any of the fans who consider longtime band mainstays like guitarist/MD Davey Johnston, percussionist Ray Cooper and drummer Nigel Olsson stars in their own right. This is a slightly misty, mostly joyful wave bye-bye to one of the great bands of the 20th and 21st centuries, along with one of the greatest singular entertainers.
Some of us could confess a slight sense of disappointment upon first taking a look at this tour’s pretty set-in-stone setlist, having seen that it only contains one really deep track — “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” a “Don’t Shoot Me” non-hit that he’s performed a mere 300-some times in his career? John loves to engage fans in some of the more obscure depths of his discography (see the “Jewel Box” collection that came out a couple years ago), but on disc, not at the expense of denying more casual fans too much of anything they came for. (Full-album “Honky Chateau” anniversary tours and other fantasies we might’ve entertained were never Captain Fantastic’s bag.)
But once the 115 minutes get underway, any regrets about Side 2 openers left unplayed immediately go by the wayside. You thought, due to 50 years of incrementally increasing overexposure, that you never needed to hear “Tiny Dancer” again. Actually, you do — that, and pretty much all of the mostly extremely familiar 23 songs in this show, each ripe for a refreshed sense of discovering when you hear them played by this band, through an awfully-good-for-a-stadium-rig setup, where just about every selection seems impressively tight in one sense and even more impressively loose in another, in roughly equal aural-kismet measure.
Some of it has to do with expanding the arrangements: the balladic “Rocket Man,” coming seven songs into the show, looks on paper like it ought to be one of his less exciting live songs, but it does not turn out to be an occasion for a Dodger dog, with a minutes-long outro section that kind of makes some baroque prog-rock of an earthy/cosmic combo. Other songs, like “Take Me to the Pilot,” get the bonus of a short piano-solo intro before the established applause riff kicks in. But it’s the most well-worn parts of these venerable standards that sometimes feel weirdly the freshest. Any possibility for anyone on stage to be phoning it in has been locked away somewhere in a Yondr pouch. John and Johnston (now there’s a law firm waiting to happen) both get their shining solo moments, but sometimes the two of them are soloing simultaneously, as in “Levon,” or Elton and bassist Matt Bissonette (a relative newbie who joined in 2013) are doing the same solo-duet thing in “Sad Songs (Say So Much).”
Even then, it’s most of all John’s rhythm playing that is so robust and free-flowing on the faster songs, you’re straining to remember whether all those magnificent notes were on the records or he’s improvising between the cracks, until you let all that analysis go and settle into grooves that are much funkier than you remember them being. That is an operative word here, and one we don’t much associate with classic-rock stadium shows: funky funky funky funky funky. (It’s hard to overstate it.) Throughout his master-class playing, John sounds like the classically trainer pianist who has somehow been enjoined to perform at a New Orleans funeral for a friend. Vocally, meanwhile, there’s no wear and tear to be heard; he’s in too prime a form for anyone apart from his own family to be happy he’s stepping aside to be a homebody.
At some point amid this nonstop entertainment, you may pause to think — but probably won’t — about how unusual all of this is, among the ’70s-based AM/FM rock catalog. Jerry Lee Lewis’s face pops up in a visual montage of musical or cultural heroes during “Border Song,” and it raises the question: How is it that the magic of Lewis and John, separately or collectively, never did inspire hundreds of millions of kids to take up rock ‘n’ roll piano, the way their guitar contemporaries did? It’s a mystery, but all the better for maintaining Elton’s singular legend on the keyboards over a half-century, maybe. Similarly: Have there been any other songwriting teams in rock that had a strict lyrics/music separation like John and Bernie Taupin — and where the non-lyric-writing partner was up front and making you believe that every strange couplet was coming directly from his own heart? With the occasional straightforward exceptions, a lot of these songs don’t get nearly enough credit for being as weird as they are, so long have we accepted them as commercial blockbusters.
Even the “sugar bear” part of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” — which John introduced as his favorite song off his favorite album of his — is a little bit odd or eccentric, if you stop to think about it. But no one is thinking about the songwriting’s sweet peculiarities in this massive setting, just about how emotional the song feels as some kind of shared exhalation, brought to further live life with a touch of the Beach Boys in the ensemble’s stacked harmonies, Cooper rocking the tubular bells and tympani, and Elton adding licks right before the song kicks into its coda that manage to make a grand piano sound just a little grander.
How much goofiness is there amid the grandeur? Maybe not as much as there used to be — definitely no duck costume changes in this show, and even the robe replacing the classic Dodgers uniform was a little signal that this isn’t really an occasion that Sir Elton wants to play for cuteness or laughs, necessarily. But that didn’t mean these shows aren’t intended as big parties. John recalled another Sir, Paul McCartney, a little bit in the way he stood from his bench to pose between songs, jocularly pointing into parts of the crowd or spreading his arms wide for photo-op lovefests. The one time he seemed genuinely zany was during a section of “Take Me to the Pilot” in which he let synth riffs take over while he made bold, exaggerated gestures — it wasn’t clear whether he was emulating an awkward conductor or doing his impression of Frankenstein’s monster, but it was a cute signal of his willingness to still play the comedian, regardless.
We won’t experience the likes of anything quite like this again after he’s gone… which is not a totally pressing concern, as John as indicated that he is open to residencies or one-off shows, on top of composing and recording; it’s just touring life he’s abandoning. There’s no doubt he means this is a serious goodbye to all that — wouldn’t you, at 75? — but this is still a case where you could hope the retiree is pulling a fake-out Sinatra or a Cher or a Motley Crue on us and coming back in a couple years. Maybe graduating to a Dodgers-branded crown.
The Disney+ livestream of the North American tour finale goes out live Sunday night at 11 p.m. ET/8 PT.
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