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An enormous cheer greeted the pounded-out piano chords of Bennie and the Jets as Elton John took to the stage at London’s Hyde Park. This, he informed us, was the 233rd date of his Farewell Tour, which began in 2019, and still has 100 dates to go. His contemporary Rod Stewart has suggested that such a long leave-taking “stinks of selling tickets” and is “not rock’n’roll”. But we can forgive Elton, one of the rock stars who has openly enjoyed fame and its conspicuous riches – cars, mansions, artworks; he once spent £293,000 on flowers in 18 months – if he is planning for his retirement. Because this show was absolutely rock’n’roll, with some country, gospel, disco and pop thrown in.
Striding through one of the great back catalogues, Elton, in white tails and diamante, belted into Philadelphia Freedom and then I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues. At 75, his powers are mostly undiminished. His piano playing is majestic, exciting, with the all-out attack of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis still flowing through it. That it comes from the stubby fingers captured on the stage-side screens makes it even more remarkable.
His voice is still powerful and bluesy, a little deeper, richer even, than the one of his twenties, although here he sometimes punched out notes that he might once have sustained. But as he tore into those big choruses, and found the emotions in songs that he must have sung thousands of times – Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, I’m Still Standing – the sense of being in the presence of a performer who gives his all was unmistakable.
There are signs of ageing, of course: Elton walked slowly and awkwardly, after a fall last year that led to a hip operation and rescheduled tour dates. And the hi-tech innovation that propelled his piano slowly to the corners of the wide expanse of the Hyde Park stage does bear an unfortunate resemblance to an extravagant mobility scooter. But he got up from his stool often to exhort the crowd, pointing, clapping, directing singalongs. On stage playing music, Elton is in his element.
If there was a criticism, it might be that the setlist feels slightly tailored for the American audience that made him a superstar with six consecutive number one albums in the 1970s. British pop fans might perhaps have chosen Daniel, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Are You Ready for Love?, over the superb renditions of album tracks such as Burn Down the Mission and Have Mercy on the Criminal. But this was an Elton very focused on his golden years as a songwriter in the 1970s, when songs were just pouring out of him, and he was regularly releasing two albums a year. A real treat for the deep fans.
The moments when he stepped forward in time, though, also provided some of the big highlights of the evening, especially the ballads. There was a gorgeous, heartfelt Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, dedicated to George Michael, and an aching Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word. His brilliant band included some who have been on the stage with him since the early years – percussionist Ray Cooper and guitarist Davey Johnstone looked out at the giant crowd at Dodger Stadium in LA in 1975. (This audience was a little older.) Dressed in sharp suits, they looked like former gangsters set to terrorise a seaside town.
The encore captured the poles of a remarkable career that has made Elton the fourth best-selling artist of all time, almost within touching distance of Elvis and The Beatles. It began with John providing sweet, perfect vocals to the piped-in beats of Cold Heart, the megahit remix of his 1989 song Sacrifice, performed on record with Dua Lipa. Then he was spotlit at the piano as he sang the miraculous hit that began it all, Your Song, which opened his self-titled 1970 album – the work of a mature artist at barely 23.
Finally, there was the song that perhaps more than any other shows the true oddity at the heart of the Elton legend. The lyrics of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, written nostalgically by Bernie Taupin, a homesick Lincolnshire farm boy – “You can’t plant me in your penthouse/ I’m goin’ back to my plough” – still sound utterly convincing when sung by one of pop’s glitziest, most flamboyant performers of all time. This may be a long goodbye, but as rock, pop and soul’s greatest stars blink out one by one, it comes with a realisation: we may never see another Elton John. He still burns brightly.
Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour continues into 2023. Tickets: eltonjohn.com