Of the 20,000 people packed inside PNC Music Pavilion on a hot, sticky, edge-of-summer Saturday night, among the only ones wearing long sleeves and pants was the man sitting at the Yamaha grand piano onstage.
And Elton John positively was the only one whose long-sleeved top was a flowing, sapphire-colored jacket with hundreds of sequins on the back that spelled out “Rocket Man” – and a thousand more that were bunched together underneath to form a spacecraft leaving a cloud of vapor.
Yet over 2 1/2 hours and 26 songs, the British singer/songwriter appeared to not break a sweat in those heavy garments, even when the camera pulled in close and cast his face onto the two big video screens flanking the stage.
That’s Sir Elton for you, in a nutshell: Still improbably cool, after all these years.
At first blush, the outdoor amphitheater might have seemed an odd fit for John, typically an indoors type of guy. He was last in the Carolinas in April 2013, when he played Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem; before that, he was at Time Warner Cable Arena in 2009 with Billy Joel. John hadn’t headlined in Charlotte solo since 2005 – and that was inside, too.
PNC, in north Charlotte, is typically a summer playground for rockers and country stars, a place where fans play cornhole in the parking lots till showtime then drink $13 beers that make them stink and dance like fools.
For John, there was less tailgating than there was for Zac Brown a couple nights earlier, but sales of those $13 beers were brisk Saturday night.
And by the time John hit full stride in the final third of the show – as he cranked out 70s hits “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “I’m Still Standing” and “The Bitch Is Back” back-to-back-to-back – PNC felt like a perfectly appropriate venue for this particular party. Couples were dancing on the lawn, and well-hydrated fans were shout-singing along loudly in every key except the right one.
There were a couple of brief lulls in the action, coinciding with cuts off of his 2013 album “The Diving Board.” Generally speaking, though, John was a joy. He spent 90 percent of the night on a backless leather chair in front of his piano, proving his fingers are as fast and nimble as ever, whether pounding away during “Bennie and the Jets” or tinkling through “Tiny Dancer.”
At 67, his walk looks more like a shuffle now, and his voice isn’t quite as heavenly as it was 30 years ago (it also had to overcome a muddy sound mix). Still, those vocal cords remain full, robust, often arresting, particularly when his seven-piece band receded on songs like “Candle in the Wind” and “Rocket Man.”
After nearly every song, John would leap to his feet – often acting like he’d just performed a magic trick, spreading his arms and raising his eyebrows as if to say, “Ta-da!” Or he’d drop his chin, gaze over the rims of his blue sunglasses and flash a crooked smile. Or he’d pump his fists and mouth, “Oh yeah!,” crinkling his face like a professional wrestler.
During a rollicking rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” he surprised everyone: shooting to his feet, climbing onto the grand piano, sitting atop it for a moment, making the “Ta-da!” expression, then hopping off and resuming his key-mashing. The crowd went berserk.
Within 10 feet of my seat, that crowd included a gray-haired guy with a goatee wearing a camouflage baseball cap; a teenage girl in cut-off booty shorts with her mom; a crew-cut, muscle-bound guy in his 30s who had tattoos on his arms and neck, and a pair of middle-aged blondes in heeled wedges.
They had nothing in common except a love of Sir Elton and his improbable coolness, still very clearly intact after all these years.