Most of the folks who packed the Verizon Center for Elton John’s Thursday show came to hear the soundtrack of their lives. And that, for better or worse, is what Elton gave them: almost three hours of near note-for-note re-creations of lots of pop history’s most familiar tunes.
Anybody unaware of the market penetration of John’s music probably learned a lot in the show’s opening moments, as he got things going with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Candle in the Wind.” That triumvirate of tracks came from the same side of the record “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a multi-platinum double-LP that was released 40 years ago last month and has provided radio programmers scads of material since. On “Funeral,” guitarist Davey Johnstone, who has been in John’s band since before “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was recorded, faithfully re-created one of the few air-guitarable solos in John’s keyboard-dependent repertoire, and ripened male fans throughout the arena dusted off their imaginary instruments and played along. Another reminder of John’s pop superpowers came with 1975’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” which showed that he could take a song inspired by a professional tennis team (Billie Jean King’s Philadelphia Freedoms) to the top of the charts.
John is 66 and has, by his own account, mistreated himself with drugs and drink for huge portions of his life. His voice can no longer do everything it once could — he didn’t even bother attempting the falsetto portions of “Benny and the Jets” and “Rocket Man.” But on vintage hits “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Crocodile Rock” — performed after he’d been onstage for 21 / 2 hours — he showed he could still roar whenever he wants. “Tiny Dancer” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” came with all the melody and grandiosity of the originals.
John has lost quite a bit on the showmanship scale, however. This is a guy, after all, who was among the most flamboyant pop stars of the past century, somebody once comfortable coming onstage in a duck outfit to croon his most emotional ballads and the deepest lyrics Bernie Taupin wrote for him. But for this show, John showed up in a dark-blue ensemble with fewer sequins than his sunglasses would have had back in the day, and there were no costume changes. John was anchored pretty much from start to finish on a stool behind a Yamaha grand piano that was set up stage right. So, other than during the few seconds he’d stand up at the end of each song and the two brief strolls he made away from the keyboard, fans on the opposite side of the arena had to be satisfied with a view of just his head.
John wasn’t much interested in verbally engaging the crowd, either. One of his rare monologues came before “Oceans Away,” a song from his just-released album, “The Diving Board.” John dedicated the tune to “the men, women and animals — yes, animals! — who gave their lives” in World Wars I and II.
Before his encores, John also spent a curiously long time signing autographs for fans bunched up front, while those in the rest of the arena grew restless. Eventually, he got back to the piano to croon “Your Song.” That’s a great song, no question, and John crooned it, as he had all the other great songs performed on this night, just as everybody remembered it. But still, this show could have benefited from a duck outfit.
McKenna is a freelance writer.