The majority of Elton John’s body will no longer do what it once was able to, ever again.
That is to say: The singer-songwriter’s days of kicking his legs up high in the air, or dropping into a side plank to play piano with one hand on the ground and his head right beneath the keys — both feats he was photographed pulling off at his very first gig, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood — are way, way, way behind him. Going on five decades now, in fact.
Still, as recently as 2014, at 67, he mustered the agility to climb up onto his Yamaha grand piano here at PNC Music Pavilion smack in the middle of a rollicking rendition of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” before hopping off and resuming his key-mashing as a surprised crowd roared.
But at Wednesday’s concert inside uptown Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, John forewent all urges to try to do anything even remotely physically challenging at the wheel of his piano. On this night, the wildest he got was when he rose from his bench and quickly lifted then promptly slammed down the lid of the instrument to punctuate the ending of songs like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Take Me to the Pilot.”
So it goes for a man who’s barreling toward 73, a man who’s finally staring retirement dead in the eye, a man who — thanks to multiple Grammy wins, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and north of 300 million records sold worldwide — basically has nothing left to prove.
And yet there is one part of John’s body that can still perform the way it used to: his fingers.
Thanks to a well-positioned camera and a live feed being cast onto a Goliath-sized video screen to the rear of the stage, fans were able to clearly appreciate the gracefulness of those digits as they danced through an ethereal instrumental break in a 9-plus-minute version of “Rocket Man,” set to visuals that included asteroid belts and exploding supernovas.
Even more impressive, though, was John’s sprinting ability on the keys, which was peppered throughout the show but perhaps best showcased in “Levon.” He more than doubled the length of that 1971 hit, inserting a meandering but muscular jam session that initially highlighted his brilliant six-piece band before racing home on the piano at a pace that might rival Jerry Lee Lewis in his prime.
It’s probably important to note that this was the British musician’s first concert in Charlotte since his PNC show five Junes ago. It’s definitely important to note that this apparently was his last.
John is now 135 dates into a 241-show swansong of a megatour (aptly titled “Farewell Yellow Brick Road”) that will keep him from his ultimate goal — being able to step away and spend more time with his husband and their two children — for another 13 months.
Sure, it’s possible he’ll pull the oldest trick in the aging-rock-star book and come back for another go in another couple of years (perhaps titled “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: No, Really This Time!,” or something to that effect), but it’s not something anyone could count on. With this in mind, some concertgoers paid asking prices of $500 to $1,500 apiece for prime secondhand tickets to secure a place in the building for the potentially historic event.
The good news is that fans got what’s probably the best version of Elton John that they can get at this moment in time, and they got a whole lot of him: Twenty-five songs over the course of almost three hours, with a heavy focus on the early part of his career that spanned from 1970 to 1976.
In addition to his perpetual piano-playing prowess, he proved Wednesday night that his pipes still shine in the low end of his register, particularly when he’s slathering butter onto the lyrics in more-emotive songs that his voice can really grab onto — “Candle in the Wind” or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” for instance.
Though he’s not leaping around like the old days, there’s still a child-like energy that he brings to his performances; as is his custom, after nearly every song, John sprang to his feet, often acting as if he’d just done a magic trick — throwing his arms wide-open, widening his eyes, and mouthing the words “Thank you” over and over again.
He still, of course, favors outlandish sequined sunglasses and sport coats with giant flowers on them, but he recognizes he’s too old to risk being tripped up by the truly outrageous stuff he used to wear on stage.
And he’s got more perspective than ever, which makes his banter with the crowd more thoughtful than ever.
In setting up one of the night’s deeper cuts, 1971’s “Indian Sunset,” he explained in the simplest of terms how his collaboration with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin has worked: “He gives me a lyric, and I go to another room and I sit at the piano, and I read the title, and then I start reading the lyric. Because he’s such a great storyteller, as I’m reading the lyric, a little story appears — a movie appears in my head. And I visualize what the song is trying to say. By the time I finish reading it, I have an idea what the song’s tempo might be, what kind of genre the music might be, and then I put my hands on the keyboard, and hope for the best. That’s it. There’s no more to it than that.”
In setting up perhaps the night’s deepest cut, “I Want Love” (off of 2001’s “Songs From the West Coast”), he opened up about the epiphany he had in 1990 that changed everything for him: “I was in baaaaaad shape. So I could do either one or two things. One, I could carry on like I was doing. Or two, I could be brave and ask for help. So I decided to be brave, and asked for help. And I got it in so many ways. And I got sober, and I got clean. ... If any of you out there are hurting inside and are too proud, like I was, to ask for help for so long, don’t do it. Ask someone to help you. It will make a difference right away. Just by admitting that you have a problem.”
And following a jazzed-up, blues-rock rendition of “Sad Songs Say So Much” — one of those songs that got John so fired up that he quickly lifted and slammed down the lid of his grand piano right after it ended — he explained his primary motivation for the tour: “As you know, this journey is coming to an end. I’m coming around to say goodbye because I’m so grateful for all the love, the kindness, the generosity and the loyalty that you have shown me for so long. I won’t forget you guys, because how could I? You’re in my soul, in my heart, every fiber of my being. But I’ve had enough applause to last me for a million lifetimes. And so I need to say goodbye.”
As the sold-out crowd started to shower him with thunderous applause, John spread his arms like wings and took three slow bows.
For 34 very long seconds, he smiled, he waved, he pumped his fists, he mouthed the words “Thank you,” with the crowd continuing to roar in waves.
In this moment, Elton John looked like a man who couldn’t get enough. He looked a little bit, quite frankly, like a man who didn’t want it to end...
A few odds and ends
- I heard multiple people point out his hard pass on the falsetto notes in songs like “Tiny Dancer” and “Crocodile Rock,” where he put it on fans to fill in for him. But if you poke around on the internets, you’ll discover the general consensus seems to be that he hasn’t really been able to hit those notes since he underwent throat surgery decades ago.
- John dedicated his 1974 hit song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” to Chapel Hill-based Ray Williams, who was heading up the A&R department for Liberty Records when he discovered the singer and subsequently connected him with Bernie Taupin. Williams was seated in one of the floor sections closest to the stage on Wednesday night, and spent the show clutching a copy of a book John had signed for him backstage beforehand.
- Right before mentioning Williams, John said: “To Andy and Brooklyn, thank you for coming. I love you guys so much.” He was referring to former tennis star Andy Roddick and his wife Brooklyn Decker, who live part-time in the Charlotte area. (Decker, an actress and fashion entrepreneur, is a Matthews native.) Roddick and John are longtime friends; John famously performed at the couple’s wedding in 2009.
- By sheer coincidence, Taupin was also in the area this week: On Tuesday, John’s writing partner (who is also an internationally acclaimed artist) was in Shelby for a visit to the Earl Scruggs Center, which just opened a permanent exhibit by Taupin titled “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire.” He calls the artwork “artistic archaeology,” and in a film accompanying the installation, Taupin said “bluegrass has always been a part of my life,” and noted that “Earl’s spirit helped me create this piece.”
- During the final song before the encore — “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” — the giant video screen projected clips of fight scenes from several iconic movies, including “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Gladiator.” If you there and were wondering where the clip of John delivering a flying kick to someone’s face came from, that’d be him playing an audacious version of himself in 2017’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”
- And finally: I got a chance to experience the concert through a PEEX headset, which uses a smartphone app and a Bluetooth device that allows you to adjust the sound levels of five different channels to your liking. I put the vocals, the piano and Nigel Olsson’s drums up high for most of the night, and found the sound to be much clearer and richer than the reverb-heavy “natural” mix. Right now John’s tour is the only one using the technology, but if it starts to branch out, I’d recommend forking over the $15 rental fee to give it a test drive at least once.
Elton John’s setlist
1. “Bennie and the Jets”
2. “All the Girls Love Alice”
3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
4. “Border Song”
5. “Tiny Dancer”
6. “Philadelphia Freedom”
7. “Indian Sunset”
8. “Rocket Man“
9. “Take Me to the Pilot”
10. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”
11. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight
13. “Candle in the Wind”
14. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”
15. “Burn Down the Mission”
17. “I Want Love”
18. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)“
19. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
20. “The Bitch Is Back”
21. “I’m Still Standing”
22. “Crocodile Rock”
23. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
24. “Your Song”
25. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes