Yot’s the first date of this UK leg of Elton John’s valedictorian Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, which began in 2018 and concludes next year after being delayed by the pandemic. As well as the lucrative payday and a final feast on the limelight, this extended exit offers the star a shot at sculpting his legacy from him. Whichever of the multiverse of infinite Eltons takes the spotlight on his final tread of the boards – the ludicrous glam-pop monster, the tailor of exquisite faux Americana, the mournful balladeer – will be a gesture towards defining how we remember him.
It’s quickly clear that tonight our host will be Elton John, human jukebox. But while the setlist unsurprisingly delivers barrage upon barrage of smash hits, it also showcases the early album material that has enjoyed a latter-day renaissance. Beginning the evening in something equal parts tuxedo and Pearly King costume, Elton’s in the company of old friends, including Nigel Olsson, his drummer on-and-off since 1969, and legendary percussionist Ray Cooper (an antic, perma-shaded character with a floor on the stage all to himself, Cooper operates like Elton’s Bez). The old gang, back together for one last job.
The bangers are bold and shameless, a fiery I’m Still Standing annihilating the memory of the I’m dill dandin debacle, while The Bitch Is Back and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting are powered by switchblade-sharp riffs better than any in the Kiss catalogue. I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, meanwhile, is the apotheosis of Elton’s 80s comeback era – overblown to the edge of ridiculousness, but sold with such conviction that it works, fabulously.
Elton revels in the monster hits, the showman defiant in the face of retirement. But there’s a glow of pride as he precedes a stirring solo run through Border Song with recollections of Aretha Franklin covering the neo-spiritual that suggests the less omnipresent, pre-megastardom tracks may be closer to his heart from him. Certainly, he and bandmates seem most alive tonight scaling the soulful crescendos and southern funk squelch of Levon. And Crocodile Rock might prompt more dancing and giddy singalongs, but it’s Tiny Dancer – which fell short of the Top 40 on release, but belatedly assumed anthem status after Almost Famous – that gets the most lighters in the air. The slow-build rise to that weightless chorus is seductive and majestic.
The show isn’t flawless – Cold Heart, with Dua Lipa duetting via videoscreen pre-record, feels odd and flat; Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word and Candle in the Wind, numbly over-sung, suggest he no longer possesses the subtlety to alchemically elevate the simply lachrymose to something affecting.
But tonight leaves us with the image of the unapologetically ridiculous outsider who annexed the mainstream through force of will, the craftsmanlike singer-songwriter who could have coasted on critical acclaim had the commercial breakthrough never come, and the pop Prospero with an unfailing feel for the world’s ear, finally putting away his magic. Tonight he passes between these roles more effortlessly than his costume changes, joyful and triumphant in the contradictions. Remember him this way.