On the yellow brick road of Elton John’s sweet farewell

22 January 2019, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA

Elton John just completed the six-show Los Angeles run of his very long worldwide farewell tour – Elton’s never done anything in small measure – and how very thankful I am that I experienced one of his LA shows, because it was a glorious and preciously poignant occasion. Elton’s signalled his intention to quit touring before – I’m pretty sure there was at least one “farewell” tour some years back – but I really got the impression he means it this time. The entire show was a self-congratulatory tribute, which the choice of songs, musical mastery, panache and sincere gratitude of the star gave abundant justification to. It was sheer brilliance. And I hadn’t really expected it to be so brilliant or for me to be so moved by the whole experience.

I offer some background to my getting to this show, as my surprise at being so moved, so completely blown away, gave me cause to think about a life of Elton. I attended the first of these LA shows, through which Elton performed to more than 120,000 people, and I didn’t know I was going until a few days before; I had completely missed out when tickets went on sale a year ago, and consoled myself with the remembrance of having seen him over the years, two or three times I thought, which seemed enough. Actually, I realised when I was looking through my box of old concert tickets, I had seen Elton five times before, all in Sydney, from 1984 to 2007. I remembered clearly seeing him in March 1984, on his Too Low For Zero tour, because that was the time he infamously spent a long summer in Australia watching cricket following his wedding to his female sound engineer, Renata Blauel (I drove by the church during the preparations that day). I also remembered the December 1986 concert during “Tour De Force”, an incredibly huge tour with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when Elton wore his Mozart wig, and I had a fairly good seat on the side of the stage and even took a few blurry photos on my little 110 mm camera. (I think that was when he broke records at the Sydney Entertainment Centre with 15 consecutive shows in that city alone.)

But I didn’t take photos at the shows I saw subsequently – in February 1990 and April 2002 – and I’d honestly forgotten that I had even seen him those times. I last saw Elton in November 2007 on his “Rocket Man Solo Tour”, and my memory of that is strange, surreal, because my mother had just died a couple weeks earlier, and I recall driving to the venue thinking how surreal it was that I was going to a concert just after my mother died. I had a really close-up seat, but I remember almost nothing of the actual performance. I’m sure Elton was fine, but I wasn’t.

I never went out of my way to see him again after that, and for this tour, which sold out within moments of tickets going on sale, I hadn’t been stressing about not going because I’d heard his voice was sub-par these days and I hadn’t heard anything new from him that grabbed me for some time; I wasn’t even all that keen on his John Lewis Christmas ad.

But I must have underestimated how intrinsic Elton John is to me. As a seventies teenager, there was never any getting away from Elton. Everything on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was featured on the soundtrack of my life back then, and along with the title song – one of those songs I will never switch the radio station from when it plays, and which always I love to sing along to – my teenage years are filled with memories that seem to have had “Benny and the Jets” and “Pinball Wizard” and “Philadelphia Freedom” and of course “Crocodile Rock” constantly playing along to. 2SM and lingering summers and fluffy red sweaters and watching Elton banter with Molly on Countdown and Dame Edna singing “Every Mother Wants a Son Like Elton”… And in the decades after there were definitive Elton moments, such as the wonderful video that Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy made for “I’m Still Standing” in Cannes in 1983; and his singing the one-off adaptation of “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana’s funeral; the extraordinarily personal documentary Tantrums and Tiaras made by his then partner, now husband, David Furnish; and their championing of gay marriage and their devotion to raising money for AIDS. And Elton becoming Sir Elton. There has never been any getting away from Elton. And yet I thought I could live without seeing him in concert again.

But when a lovely friend offered me her extra ticket to the January 22 show at the Staples Center, I got excited. And even though our seats were way, way back from where I normally like to be these days – up close where I can take good photos – I was completely swept away, riveted and overjoyed. It was a spectacular start to 2019.

Elton’s voice was in fine form, beyond fine, it was deep and rich and unfaltering. Elton’s piano playing – and he plays on every single song, that’s 24 songs in nearly three hours – was impeccable, and as the camera spends a lot of time filming close-ups of his fingers on the keys to project on the giant screen, I’m pretty sure that that was all Elton, no pre-recorded tracks, no wizardry. Elton’s scripted but naturally delivered between-song monologuing was much more than patter – there were stories about the struggles he and lyricist Bernie Taupin had endured before they found success; the naïve wonderment when Aretha Franklin chose to record their “Border Song” in 1972; the deep love he has for Los Angeles not the least because of his series of Troubadour shows here in 1970 and the review by then LA Times music writer Robert Hilburn that launched his career; how “Daniel” had an extra verse written by Taupin that Elton deleted and wishes he hadn’t; how very proud he is of his Elton John AIDS Foundation; and other tales that he would tell with one arm resting on the top of his grand piano, fingers lightly tapping the shiny surface. All the way back in the Staples Center I was riveted and so were the people around me.

The sound on stage was mighty, and his six-piece band – almost small compared with many other musicians and bands who tour with numerous supplementary players – included three legends that have toured and recorded with Elton since the very early years – guitarist Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper. With a third drummer, John Mahon, bassist Matt Bissonette, and keyboardist Kim Bullard, it was a pronouncedly percussive sound, and for all the fabulousness of a setlist of mostly greatest hits and a few treasured deep cuts, including six songs from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, I wish so much he had included the brilliant “Better Off Dead” from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (my very favourite Elton song!) as it would have brought the house down with all those drums. The centrepiece of the show was the GYBR opening double “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” – it was extraordinarily powerful and worth the price of admission alone – and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” was the ballad performance to beat all ballad performances. I would have loved him to include “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” from the Blue Moves album instead of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”, but hey, I’m not really complaining. I hope there is a film of this tour, because not only was the performance superb, but the films on screen behind each song would be worth seeing again, too. They told stories of diversity and inclusion, populated at times with people of all races and colours, straight and gay and trans, and when he came out for the encore in his third outfit and sang “Your Song”, we knew he was singing it for all of them and all of us. Including Lady Gaga, who was right down the front; she had been nominated for two Oscars that morning and was the recipient of a dedication from Elton on behalf of his two young sons, back in England, who asked him to sing a song for their “Gagamother”.

The films on screen also gleefully showed the many different personas and costumes and significant milestones of an amazing career, from Captain Fantastic to the Pinball Wizard, from Rocket Man to the crazy guy who was and is always still standing. The archival footage and photos were wondrous.

From what I’ve seen from people’s pictures of the other LA shows, Elton wore different outfits each night; I loved the rhinestone and floral jackets he wore for this show (I really want that floral one), and I was bemused by the smoking jacket/dressing gown he wore for the encore, then removed to reveal a tracksuit for his ascent on a platform to the yellow brick road he walked off towards, without looking back. It was not a cliché; it was genuinely affecting. I didn’t stay to watch the trailer of the upcoming Rocket Man biopic that was shown as people left their seats. I didn’t want to see anyone else be Elton just yet.

The day after I saw this concert, I was interviewed for an Australian radio special to air when ticket sales were going to be announced for down under (they just have been). Elton is going to spend more than two months in Australia and New Zealand doing shows and I checked the dates to see if my high school reunion, that I need to be back for in November, coincides with the Sydney dates. Alas, no, so unless my own yellow brick road merges with Elton’s future touring, I’d say I have had my last farewell with him. And although I was too far back to get super sharp photos, my little camera valiantly did its best and I got a collection of pictures that will ensure I remember this performance forever more. They’re not my best photos but they give a sense of the scale of the show, how it looked from where I sat, and, most importantly, how Elton looked. If you haven’t yet caught a show on this “Farewell Yellow Brick Road – The Final Tour”, and if you are someone who has had a life of Elton, or even moments of Elton that resonate, please don’t miss this. It is truly remarkable.

Setlist for Elton John at the Staples Center

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