BEING THERE: Sir Elton John @ Wells Fargo Center

Elton John "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" Tour Opener - Allentown

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

And, in the end, the chap born Reginald Kenneth Dwight 71 years ago – long known better as Elton Hercules John – rose from the piano stool on the Wells Fargo Center stage after closing his hits-heavy 24-song show and soaked up the vociferous Philadelphia crowd’s love one last time. It was only the third of his 300+-date “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour – which opened in glamorous Allentown, PA, over the weekend and is expected to circle the globe thru 2021 – but it was the finale of his sold-out two-night stand in Philly. As he sang to us in that last number, the title track to his acclaimed 1973 double LP: “So goodbye yellow brick road/ Where the dogs of society howl/ You can’t plant me in your penthouse/ I’m going back to my plough/ …” (Notably, Sir Elton did six songs off Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, his fifth album, more than any other, including the welcomed deep cut “All the Girls Love Alice.”)

Ah, but our would-be plowman went out a champ, throwing off his suave robe (all his farewell tour stage outfits designed by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, FYI) to reveal him as relatively dressed down in a sporty tracksuit. (John has long been a sports enthusiast, from part-owning soccer teams like the NASL’s L.A. Aztecs and England’s Watford F.C., to celebrating tennis great and women’s/ LBGTQ rights activist Billie Jean King via his 1975 chart-topping single “Philadelphia Freedom” – done last night, but of course, song #6 – using the name of her World Team Tennis franchise.)

Actually, dude went out like a king, which he surely is, of rock-era popular song: Hail, Eltonian Rex. Facing the crowd, he backed onto a device which slowly took a waving Elton backwards from the stage, up a 45-degree angle and thru a door in his massive stage screen backdrop portraying a starry firmament. Sure, it prompted thoughts of an aging grandpa using a chair lift to get up the stairs, but he was, ahem, “Still Standing” (song #20 last night, from ‘83’s Too Low for Zero, alb #17). Then we saw a clip of EJ walking off into a glow of gold … and, roll credits: literally, with a crawl for all “TEAM FAREWELL” personnel, etc. Wotta fine idea, to cap one of these big-deal, many-hands-helping tours, especially for another Baby Boomer superstar making his last go-round, etc. – take note, imminent retirees et al.

Over the course of two sets spanning nearly three hours, the native Londoner had been in very-good to good-enough (lower-with-age) voice, letting backup vox-ing help him in spots, e.g., the high notes of the last tune’s “ro-OO-OO-oad.” But he positively scorched on the piano more oft than not, full throttle and with all skills intact, going for it with the gusto expected – demanded? – of someone giving things a last whirl. Case in point: “Levon” (song #11, one of three off 1971 gem Madman Across The Water, alb #4) more than doubled from its 5:22 studio length to 11:20 of primo Brit blues-rock-y glam-boogie. John pounded the keys with vigor as longtime Elton guitarist Davey Johnstone especially stepped up and out on flashy Les Paul goldtop leads and fills, juicing the song considerably.

The Scots guitar man with the long blond hair, for decades a key if arguably underrated component of Elton’s sound (and now music director of his band), looked a bit like Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander but Johnstone moved about and ripped out sounds from his shiny ax with an aplomb reminiscent of the late, great Spider From Mars and Bowie cohort, Mick Ronson. This is praise not given lightly – but I couldn’t help thinking it, being a fan/ student of Ronson’s artistry. (Fun-fact: just now learned that an early version of Madman’s title track was recorded in 1970 with thee Mick Ronson on guitar!)

Also, I was being careful not to go overboard in my anticipated high estimation of Johnstone, having waited decades to see him: my only other time seeing Elton John was in 1979, while in high school in Spain, when he was touring as A Single Man (title of his 12th alb) and doing a solo set followed by a second set accompanied only by his great percussionist Ray Cooper (who was there last night as well, in all his eccentric tambourine-rattling, tympani-thumping, cymbal-crashing glory). Thus, I craved (and received) Johnstone jammage; and seriously, at times, he almost sounded like he could’ve been Mick Ralphs as well, hovering on guitar around Ian Hunter’s driving piano during Mott the Hoople’s “All The Way From Memphis” until he breaks into his tasty solo … (More Davey J. fun-fact-oring, from Elton himself: when John praised Johnstone last night, he noted that before he joined the Elton John Band as its fourth member – with drummer Nigel Olsson, playing on this tour, and deceased bassist Dee Murray – DJ had never played electric guitar, was an expert acoustic picker, and that his folk-steeped ideas had enriched the Elton J. catalog.)

I love choice Elton ballads, but ok: I just put my R&R cards on the table. Thus, my other fave of the eve may’ve been “Burn Down the Mission” (song #14, off 1970’s Tumbleweed Connection, his 3rd LP) which breathed considerable fire in its gospelized second half as well. Curiously, a piece I was looking forward to suffered from the irregular sound mix @ the Wells. The break between sets last night was more of a lights-lowered, extended-pause  affair, w the high fidelity aural onslaught of howling wind (hey: set 1’s last song was “Candle In The Wind”), a violent rainstorm and clapping thunder soon booming out over the arena. (Hurricane Florence come early? Nah.) Then the fog effect kicked in, and, of course, got it: a funereal setting as “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” began its buildup. Except the instruments became increasingly ill-defined as the song went on, with Johnstone’s great leads particularly swamped in the keyboard-saturated mix. (Peculiarly, it clocked only 10:16 live, down from the grand 11:22 studio track [also on ‘73’s Goodbye YBR], for decades one of “Classic Rock” radio’s few tolerable full-length staples [compare to, say, “Free Bird” – feel me?].)

Also interesting: Elton cleverly rolled up a last shout-out to Philadelphia and its great music’s impact on him with a rave about current Phila. combo Low Cut Connie, fronted by the exuberant singing pianist Adam Weiner, who obviously has some EJ in his performer DNA. To said band, he dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (song #18, off 1974’s Caribou alb, his 8th).

There were other tributes but one can read about them elsewhere; perhaps, however, one bears pointed mention here even if it’s somewhat oblique: embedded in the lyric & not widely known. The plague of premature musician death still haunts the entertainment world and beyond, whether by overdose or, too often, suicide. Elton John has a sterling ballad that deals with his own dark time when he considered taking his life. As he announced last night, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is a very special album [from 1975, his 9th, dealing with autobiographical issues: John is the titular Captain Fantastic and his decades-long lyricist Bernie Taupin is the Brown Dirt Cowboy] and this, for me, is a very personal song.”

With that, he commenced the stark yet gorgeous “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” doing an exquisite read. The tune hearkens back to an earlier time in John’s life, pre-solo career, when he was in a London (East End) circle of poor but spirited, aspiring blues-rock players (many later famous). One of his friends from the era, Long John Baldry, had hired a teenaged John to play in his backing band, Bluesology. Later, when Elton was contemplating suicide over an impending marriage to a woman that just felt wrong – this was long before he came out as gay – Baldry intervened, spent time with John and told him not to get married but concentrate on his music. Lyricist Taupin dubbed Baldry “Sugar Bear” – and the words tell the tale, leaving us grateful for the result of Elton John subsequently giving us 50 more years of music-making: 

A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams…
Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive…
And someone saved my life tonight – Sugar Bear…
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye-bye