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It seemed curious that Elton John would kick off his massive, multi-continent Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, of all places. But as you’re taken on the nearly three-hour journey of the life and career of a legend, it all clicks: he means something to everyone. It’s damn near impossible not to feel connected to John’s catalog, and that feeling is the same if you’re royalty, or if you live in a sleepy city in eastern Pennsylvania.
Wherever and whenever you do see John (and you have some options considering the superstar is rolling out more than 300 shows over the course of the next three years), it’s transcendent the minute he hits those unmistakable opening notes for “Benny and the Jets.”
Elton John dedicates Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me to Mac Miller: “Mac, wherever you are, I hope you’re happy now” pic.twitter.com/oJHNfVFqdz
— Maeve McDermott (@maeve_mcdermott) September 9, 2018
Actually, it’s transcendent the moment you see the stage setup which is framed by, yes, a yellow brick road. Each brick in the road features a milestone or marker, from his Tony-winning work on Broadway to his fashionable partnership with Gucci.
The whole setup is quintessential John, but for as big a spectacle as the show can be, it’s also deeply personal. It serves as a love letter to his longtime bandmates (including drummer Nigel Olsson and the wildly entertaining and animated percussionist Ray Cooper) and his other musical collaborators (he spoke frequently, and with great affection, for his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin).
It’s a show for his friends, his family, his husband, his children, and as he made sure to let the sold-out crowd know time and time again: his fans. “There’s been one constant,” John shared with the audience regarding his nearly 50-year career, “and that’s been you guys.”
— Def Pen (@defpen) September 9, 2018
As a thank you, he’s giving the fans exactly what they could want in a final hurrah: some of his all-time biggest hits, played with his classic gusto and draped in glitz.
“Your Song,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Rocket Man,” “Daniel,” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” — all songs John has undoubtedly played hundreds, if not thousands, of times — are performed with a joy of someone who still really loves what they do and has every intention of saying goodbye to these timeless pieces properly.
He did right by everything on the setlist, but his rollicking, minutes-long piano solo during “Levon” was so otherworldly that even he couldn’t help but give an exhausted, albeit satisfied sigh of relief when it all came together.
In a particularly somber moment, John dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” to rapper Mac Miller, who died just a day before the Saturday (Sept. 8) concert. “It’s inconceivable that someone so young and with so much talent could be gone,” John told the crowd, before asking that they send all of their love and best wishes to Miller’s family.
John paid his respects to a bevy of fellow musicians and artists, including Aretha Franklin, whom he once called “The greatest singer of all time.” Before performing the heart-wrenching and more relevant than ever “Border Song,” John praised Franklin’s cover and said it was “incredible to have this woman sing this song.”
He dedicated “Border Song” to Franklin, as well as other figures throughout history who he said inspired his work and life. A massive screen on the stage then flashed images of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Princess Diana, John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosa Parks and Elvis Presley.
While it’s hard not to keep your eyes directly on John’s dizzying piano work and his sparkly duds, that screen plays a major role in this tour. Among the highlights were a captivating short by David LaChapelle about Marilyn Monroe during “Candle in the Wind,” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” featured photographs from some John’s personal collection.
The montage that stole the show, however, came with “I’m Still Standing,” which delightfully spanned every bit of pop culture John left his mark on, both very good and very bad. He could have easily left out his cameo in the 2002 film flop The Country Bears or his viral fall at the Statoil Masters, but he kept them because, you know, he’s still standing.
Any minor misstep was quickly forgotten when John talked about his groundbreaking AIDS foundation. He stated that his motivation to create the foundation came from feeling helpless and needing to do more in the wake of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Having raised awareness, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars for the cause, the footage of his work with the organization to the sounds of “Believe” felt like his personal crowning achievement.
John has earned every right to pat himself on the bedazzled shoulder for his legendary run as an entertainer, but the bittersweet Farewell Yellow Brick Tour is as much an honor to an extraordinary life as it is humbling and honest.
Naturally, he closed the show with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and in true going-out-in-style in a way only John could, he performed the ballad in a robe. Under the robe? A track suit with his name engraved in rhinestones on the back. The road to retirement has never looked or sounded so good.
A version of this story first appeared on billboard.com
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