PHILADELPHIA — Goodbyes can be brutal. But Elton John continues to usher out his extraordinary career with grace and enthusiasm, while ensuring fans savor a spate of highlights from his colossal catalog.
At Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park on Friday, a beaming John and his legendary band emerged before the sun set and more than two hours and 23 songs later, the first date of the final U.S. leg of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour was a footnote in history.
The show also marked the launch of the stadium portion of the tour, which will wrap in Los Angeles in November before bouncing back to Europe for the concluding run. It feels like another lifetime ago that John embarked on his long and winding goodbye; indeed, the world looked much different in 2018 when he debuted the show in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
But he’s still enticing Baby Boomer devotees and millennial newcomers alike, a refreshing span of ages evident among the sold-out crowd of more than 40,000.
During the encore, John noted – with a bit of humble disbelief – that he was playing a recent hit, “Cold Cold Heart,” his mashup with Dua Lipa (who appeared on video) in tandem with his first-ever chart-topper from 1971, the truly timeless “Your Song.”
It’s a feat both admirable and exceedingly unlikely to be duplicated.
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Throughout the night, John, in a bejeweled white tux jacket, black pants and lavender-framed glasses appeared refreshed and happy behind his black Yamaha grand piano. The hit parade commenced with the familiar plinking notes of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by “Philadelphia Freedom,” with guitarist Davey Johnstone casually unfurling the song’s jangly riff.
John, 75, was delightfully hammy between songs, popping up from his piano bench to point and grin at the crowd while mouthing thanks and leading a concert that felt brisk, but never rote.
While some songs (“I’m Still Standing,” “Tiny Dancer”) contained noticeably lower keys to suit John’s current range, he mostly sounded robust, adding vocal embellishments to the end of an easy-swinging “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and injecting “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” with emphatic emotion.
The highlights along this trip down sentimental street were numerous. The hazy effects on the video accompanying the ever-ethereal “Rocket Man” added a gauzy coating as the dreamy chorus segued into an elongated piano coda. “Levon,” one of the underrated beauties in John’s cache of creativity with lyricist Bernie Taupin, escalated into a gospel throwdown before weaving back into the melody. And the epic instrumental “Funeral for a Friend,” a sonic eruption that melts into “Love Lies Bleeding,” remains a master class in musicianship.
Though John’s teammates never earned a moniker àla the E Street Band, these exceptional players have been an integral part of his live shows. Many, such as dapper drummer Nigel Olsson (sporting his trademark gloves, headphones and a pink pocket square in his suit), the treasure that is percussionist Ray Cooper and the distinctive Johnstone have shared stages with the maestro since the earliest gigs.
Percussionist John Mahon, keyboardist Kim Bullard and bassist Matt Bissonnette also add musical flair that prompted John to comment how much he’s relished playing with this group.
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While their tautness was expected given the volume of shows they’ve played, the band also leaned into a couple of surprises in the set list.
The rollicking “All the Girls Love Alice,” from 1973’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album, arrived for the first time this year (John did unearth the album track during many pre-pandemic farewell dates). But more unexpected was the tour debut of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” John’s swoony 1972 ode to New York City that he hasn’t performed live since his 2018 Las Vegas run. It was, as always, enchanting.
As the concert crept toward its conclusion – with fans realizing the wind down of their time in John’s orbit – the musician offered sincere thanks and told the audience to “love each other” while wishing them “health, happiness and success.”
Then, as he has throughout the tour, John unwrapped “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” his delicate rumination of life in transition and the ideal summary of a career that will be forever celebrated.