Concert Review: Elton John ‘Yellow Brick Road’ farewell all you could imagine and more at PPL Center, Allentown
For Elton John, “Farewell Yellow Brick Road - The Final Tour” began Sept. 8, 2018, in Allentown, no less, at the PPL Center, where the superstar and his band, staff and crew holed up for nearly a week to assemble, rehearse and present what is a spectacular retrospective of the iconic pop-rock singer-performer-composer’s 50-year career.
The 24-song, 2-hour, 40 min. concert (by my count) was, by turns, intimate (Sir Elton’s chatty introductions to nearly every song), gargantuan (the rococo gold bas-relief frame depicting career highlights that wrapped around a high-definition video screen that went nearly set edge to set edge and set floor to arena ceiling), and encyclopedic (images from Elton John’s childhood, to charity work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, to performance and recording career mileposts).
After starting punctually at 8:01 p.m. (one minute after the announced 8 p.m. concert start), the load-out had already began (including the nine-foot grand piano, which somehow several times during the concert self-propelled itself back and forth across the stage with Sir Elton playing it) before the clock struck 11 p.m. The some 18 semi tractor-trailers were wheeling about PPL Center by 12:30 a.m. Sept. 9, getting ready to transport the set and gear to Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, for the tour’s next stop, a two-night stand, Sept. 11 and 12.
The “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” (FYBR) tour, in partnership with AEG, includes more than 300 shows on five continents, in front of an expected 6 million before concluding in 2021.
Elton John, 71, is one of the top-selling solo artists ever with 38 gold records and 31 platinum and multi-platinum albums, more than 50 Top 40 hits, and 300 million records sold worldwide.
He has received five Grammys, a Tony, an Oscar, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Kennedy Center Honors, and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for “services to music and charitable services.”
In Allentown’s PPL Center opening night concert, Sir Elton was loquacious (song introductions were generous, casual and informative), relaxed (frequent deep bows, facing various sections of the arena, and facetiously waving his hands in a “come-on” for more applause, as if there could be more deafening applause and cheers from the 10,000-plus at the sold-out show) and happy (he smiled that wide still boyish grin of his often).
This was a more engaging Elton John than when he played PPL Center two years ago, Sept. 27, 2016. “Good evening, Allentown, and welcome to the very first show of my farewell tour,” he said after his second song, “All the Girls Love Alice.” Throughout the flawless and brilliantly-paced show, Sir Elton seemed genuinely at peace with his decision to wind down the concert touring phase of his career. But as his bristling and powerful performance at the keyboard and his robust and soulful singing proved Sept. 8, opening night, Elton John is giving this tour and his fans his all.
That the concert concluded with movie-like end credits was justified. The concert’s visuals alone are worthy of a separate cinema review.
The concert put the emphasize on many of Sir Elton’s best-known songs, with a only a few lesser-known songs performed. His superb band, which really rocks out, includes several long-time accompanists: Davey Johnstone, music director, guitar, backup vocals; Nigel Olsson, drums; Ray Cooper, percussion; John Mahon, percussion; Kim Bullard, keyboards, and Matt Bissonette, bass.
Following is the PPL Center set list, in order, and with some observations:
“Bennie and the Jets” (a rousing opener with Sir Elton in heart-shaped rose-colored glasses and a black tux with tails, red sequin highlights and orange and green dragon design on the jacket back, one of Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele several designs for the tour); “All the Girls Love Alice,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (with photographs of couples of various ages and in various moods of discontent by photographer Martin Parr, many from Sir Elton’s photography collection);
“Border Song” (saying he and lyricist Bernie Taupin were overjoyed when it was covered by Aretha Franklin to whom he dedicated the song. A montage of images of those who inspired him included Ryan White, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Hawking, and his grandmother, Ivy Sewell); ”Tiny Dancer” (accompanied by a film of persons in Los Angeles, each with a storyline, including a young female skateboarder, an elderly seemingly eccentric woman, and a couple having fun on their freeway ride. The film is by filmmaker Max Weiland, winner of “The Cut,” a YouTube contest); “Philadelphia Freedom” (introduced with an enthusiastic, “Here we go!”);
“Indian Sunset” (with Sir Elton lauding his long songwriting partnership with Taupin and explaining that when he’d receive Taupin’s lyrics, he’d imagine “little films in my mind.” For “Indian Summer,” it was more like several films, he said. The song was performed with Sir Elton at the piano and Ray Cooper on percussion); “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” (with extended introduction and solo);
“Take Me to the Pilot”; “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (with trippy “Yellow Submarine” film-like characters by graphic artist Alan Aldridge, created in 1975 for a never-produced “Captain Fantastic” animated feature); “Levon (including a Beatles’ “Day Tripper” musical quote and an amazing guitar solo by Davey Johnstone, with Sir Elton jamming on piano. “Levon” rocks); “Candle in the Wind” (a solo piano contrast with a film short by photographer David LaChapelle that recreates Marilyn Monroe’s last photo session with photographer Bert Stern circa her unfinished 1962 movie, “Something’s Got To Give,” with Judy Garland-esque distraction and disappointment crossing her face);
“Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (after a blue ”fog”-laden break and a costume to change to bejeweled round glasses and a window-pane design jacket homage to an Elton John 1970s’ outfit and recent runway tribute, Sir Elton announced, “Welcome back to Round Two of ‘Farewell Yellow Brick Road’”); “Burn Down the Mission,” “Believe” (with archival footage of Elton John AIDS Foundation work with $400 million raised to date);
“Daniel”; “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” (heartfelt kudos to fans: “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”; “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (dedicated to Mac Miller), “The Bitch Is Back” (with a film of drag queens cavorting and kvetching), “I’m Still Standing” (with self-deprecating footage from “The Simpsons” to “South Park” to Sir Elton falling over chairs on an interview set);
“Crocodile Rock” (with PPL Center cameras showing the ecstatic audience singing along) and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” provided huge closers with an encore (after a some five-minute ovation) of “Your Song” (with Sir Elton solo at the piano) and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (after which, he rode a hydraulic lift platform to disappear into a panel that opened up in the screen KIaatu-like from the classic science-fiction film, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951) and a video on the big screen of an animation sequence of a young Elton John disappearing down that Yellow Brick Road.
With Elton John on the Yellow Brick Road to the Oz of his farewell tour, at his PPL Center opening night concert, it was as if we in the audience had been to the Emerald City and met the Wizard of Oz.
The sheer poetry of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and the sheer artistry of Elton John’s music is not to be underestimated. The songs are deceptively simple. They’re actually quite complex, beautifully layered and intricately nuanced. To quote from “Your Song,” with reference to Elton John and his music: “How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”
As he sings in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”: “Thank God, my music’s still alive.” Indeed, Elton John is alive and well and touring, albeit one final time down the Yellow Brick Road.