ELTON JOHN at Scotiabank Arena, Wednesday, September 26. Rating: NNNNN
On his second of two nights in Toronto (with two more coming in October), promptly at 8 pm, Elton John took the stage and immediately starting pounding on the keyboard with his rollicking classic Bennie And The Jets. His booming voice hastened latecomers as they flooded into their seats. By 90 minutes into the legendary 71-year-old’s performance, you could only marvel at his stamina. And that was only a little over the halfway mark.
John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour has been met with overwhelming bucket list demand, which has stretched it over three years – to be fair, he does call it a “long” goodbye – but this felt more like “get the party started” rather than last call. Unlike many musicians who’ve survived five decades, John can’t be relegated to nostalgia – he remains in his heights of performance power and relevance. Case in point: rapper Young Thug recently sampled Rocket Man on his track High.
The challenge for an artist of John’s magnitude is: how to say goodbye? How to encapsulate a 50-year/30-plus-album/50-hit career into your final shows? Answer: head straight to the hits. With a set list that stretched nearly three hours – with only a single five-minute thunderstorm projection interlude for a customary outfit change and an encore break – the singer packed the show with both iconic songs and rarer catalogue tracks: Indian Sunset, Your Song, I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, Tiny Dancer and too many more standouts to list (though Nikita and Little Jeannie were notably absent).
John’s voice has barely diminished with time. Other than those barely believable 70s high notes, his robust vocals sound like they were pulled directly off the many 45s, vinyl, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, MP3s and Spotify streams he’s been responsible for over the decades. Soaking in the adulation, John popped up from his seat after every song, pounding his piano top closed like a mic drop, beaming from ear to ear as he punched the air in triumph and opened his arms to the adoring crowd. His talent, charisma and glamour have not changed.
Neither have his renowned stage looks: glittery teal spectacles paired with a silver suit and tails an embroidered snake coiled into a music note morphed into a red checkered suit with scarlet glasses and the topper, his encore tracksuit worn beneath an olive-green bedazzled silk robe with a pink collar, accented with heart-shaped glasses that only he and Lana Del Rey can pull off. The stage was also wonderfully crafted and adorned. Its gigantic slope mirrored the curves of his iconic piano and was trimmed with gold foil bricks and lights that often showered the crowd in rainbow hues. It cradled his large percussion section, including drummer Ray Cooper, whose masterful virtuosity was an epic sight to behold.
He couldn’t play a farewell show without repeated acknowledgement of the man behind the scenes who wrote John’s lyrics for 50 years. Bernie Taupin was not in the room, which was actually fitting – John remarked that they’ve never written a song in the same room, surmising that that may be the reason why their friendship has lasted this long.
Poignant moments were sprinkled throughout, but they never felt maudlin. He shared a memory of being a young songwriter and discovering that Aretha Franklin was covering his Border Song, which he sang as the backdrop lit up with people he has loved and admired over the years: Nina Simone, Elizabeth Taylor, Billie Jean King, Mohammed Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King. He played his tribute to Marilyn Monroe, Candle In The Wind (he sang the original version, not the 1997 version adapted to pay tribute to the death of Princess Diana). He told the story of how in the 90s, finally sober, he turned his shame over not doing enough about the AIDS crisis in the 80s into action by creating the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
And lastly, he paid tribute to his husband of 25 years, Torontonian David Furnish, and their two sons, his reason for quitting touring. An honorary Canadian thanks to Furnish (he was spotted record shopping at Sonic Boom last week), John also shouted out musicians Ron Sexsmith and Jessie Reyez who were in the crowd, noting his love of both the history of music and its future. (He also posed for a photo with up-and-coming Toronto rock band the Beaches.)
As the final song, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, came to a close, John stepped up to a tiny bridge that lifted him above the stage enveloping him into a dazzling yellow brick road world. His digital image danced towards the sunset as the real man returned to the road to finish his farewell party.
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