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Review: Elton John is just as great outdoors

Of the 20,000 people packed inside PNC 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 on the center of the stage.

And Elton John absolutely, 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 in its wake.

Yet over 21/2 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 up onto the two big video screens flanking the stage.

That’s Sir Elton for you, in a nutshell: Still almost improbably cool, after all these years.

In fact, at first blush, the outdoor amphitheater seemed an odd fit for John, typically an “indoors” type of guy. He was last in the Carolinas in April 2013 when he played LJVM Coliseum in Winston-Salem; before that, he was at Time Warner Cable Arena in 2009 with Billy Joel. Prior to Saturday, John hadn’t headlined in Charlotte solo since 2005 – and that was inside, too (at Bobcats Arena).

The north Charlotte venue 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.

There was less tailgating for John than there was for Zac Brown a couple nights earlier, but sales of those $13 beers were brisk on Saturday night. And as the night progressed, the crowd got looser, the party wilder.

By the time John hit full stride in the final third of the show – with ’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 – couples were dancing in the aisles and fans were shout-singing along loudly in every key except the right one.

Meanwhile, the star’s voice sounded just fine. At 67, it’s not quite as heavenly as it was 30 years ago (and it had to overcome a muddy mix that plagued chunks of the set), but his vocals remain full, robust, and often arresting, particularly when the sound of his seven-piece band receded on songs like “Candle in the Wind” and “Rocket Man.”

There were a couple of brief lulls, which seemed to coincide with songs off of his most recent album; generally speaking, though, John was a joy to watch on stage.

He sat on a leather backless chair in front of his piano 95 percent of the time, and that’s a great place for him to be. His fingers are as fast and nimble as ever, whether he’s pounding away during “Bennie and the Jets” and tinkling through “Tiny Dancer.”

After nearly every song, John would pop up 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, look across the crowd over the tops of his electric-blue sunglasses, and flash a crooked smile. Or he’d pump his fists in the air and mouth, “Oh yeah!,” while crinkling his face like a WWE 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 on it for a moment, making the “Ta-da!” face, then hopping off and resuming his key-mashing. The crowd went berserk.

Within 10 feet of my seat in Section 3, that crowd included a gray-haired guy with a goatee wearing a camoflauge ballcap; a teen girl in cut-off booty shorts with her mom; a crew-cutted, 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.

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