His gift is his song: Elton John wows Utah fans in Vivint Arena farewell

Sorry, Bernie Taupin, but on Wednesday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena it was “thank you” that seemed to be the hardest words to say for Elton John.

In a phenomenal performance that kicked off the third leg of his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, John said goodbye to his Utah fans in a way befitting an entertainer of his stature — namely by shoehorning 50 years worth of musical memories into an ear- and eye-popping 2-hour, 45-minute wondrous stage production.

By the time a slowly ascending platform carried a waving John up and out of view through an elevated opening in the monstrous backing LCD screen — which was a star itself on this night — and a closing video showed him from behind, strolling down an animated yellow brick road toward an unknown future, there probably wasn’t a dry sentimental eye in the arena. Yes, it was an emotional night for thousands, and that included the “Rocket Man” himself.

Late in his set, John shared his last extended message/song intro to the crowd before “Don’t Let the Go Down on Me.”

“This is the 50th year of touring for me. It’s been the most incredible journey I never would have expected,” he said. “Without you, I mean diddly squat.”

John extended gratitude to the fans for buying his singles, albums, 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs, but most of all, he said, he appreciated their attendance at his concerts.

“The greatest thrill for me is to play in front of another human being and get a response,” he said. “I will never forget you. You’re in my heart. You’re in my soul. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you have given me.”

At this point, John stood up and was noticeably moved by the crowd’s reaction — even taking a moment to remove his bejeweled glasses and wipe away what must have been the clouds in his eyes. It was just that kind of night.

Following a brief musical montage, the show opened with John sitting at his piano and playing the first staccato notes of “Bennie and the Jets” under spotlights as the stage — and crowd — immediately roared to life.

John’s six-man backing band was arrayed at various points of a two-tiered set platform, which was itself inset into the base of the gigantic LCD screen, which surrounded most of the musicians on all sides. For time-tested fans of the band, it was instantly exciting to see Davey Johnstone on stage, as the longtime guitarist/band leader had missed the entirety of the second tour leg (in Europe from May to July) following shoulder surgery. Personally, I can’t imagine a John concert without him.

At the end of “Bennie and the Jets,” John instantly popped up and raised his arms to the crowd as Johnstone led the charge into the next song with the powerful opening guitar riff to “All the Girls Love Alice.”

John’s amazing piano abilities were, naturally, on display all night long — as was his flair for showmanship, as he could often be seen mugging and pointing to the audience with one hand while still playing with his other. Sure, the days when John would lie under the keyboard and play it upside down or climb up on top of the piano itself may be long gone, but he would still occasionally lift his right foot up on one end of the keys while continuing to play.

John’s keyboard talents were even more especially evident on songs like “Rocket Man” and “Levon,” where he performed extended jam versions, changing up the timeless flight of those well-known hits and giving them an extra boost of life in the process.

In fact, when John reached up and pushed the microphone at his piano back and out of the way after the main vocal part in “Levon,” attentive fans knew they were in for something special. The bonus section included a brief guitar nod to the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and a rhythmically incredible three-way drum showcase featuring Nigel Olsson and percussionists Ray Cooper and John Mahon, that had John and Johnstone smiling in appreciation. At one point, John stood up and faced the audience while straddling his piano bench and tickling the ivories with abandon. Eventually, he pulled the microphone back and finished off the song.

While John’s multitude of hits are inevitably going to dominate the proceedings, there are always a few deep album cuts to appease the diehards and wow the more casual attendee. So it was that one of the absolute emotional pinnacles of the entire evening occurred when John and Cooper delivered a moving and dynamic duet of “Indian Sunset,” a somewhat hidden gem from the 1971 “Madman Across the Water” album.

In introducing the song, John shared the normal writing process between him and lyricist Taupin.

“I’ve got to explain,” he said, “Bernie and I write different than others.”

John detailed how they have never written a song in each other’s presence and that he always takes Taupin’s lyrics to another room, where he reads them through for the first time.

“A little movie opens in my head,” he said. “I put my hands on the keyboard and hope for the best. That’s how it’s always been.”

That hope was certainly rewarded on “Indian Sunset,” which he said seemed like a two-and-a-half-hour movie when he first read the lyrics. The tune came to him in three distinct tempo-changing parts, lending itself perfectly to the seven-minute piano-percussion treatment he and Cooper performed Wednesday.

The song began with John singing a cappella for the first eight lines, and then the piano and percussion entering dramatically together. It should be pointed out that Cooper — who also hearkens back to John’s early glory days, although he has been both in and out of the band for many stretches in between — might be one of the most entertaining percussionists of all time. If there’s anybody that puts more performing panache into straight percussion, I don’t have a clue who it is.

So entertaining is the John-Cooper dynamic, in fact, that the pair once did an entire tour just by themselves. Witnessing what they did with “Indian Sunset,” one can immediately understand how that tour was a success.

Cooper was alone on the second tier of the band platform, leaving him plenty of room to work his magic on multiple songs, and slip away and arrive as unobtrusively as possible. Having him rejoin the band for this farewell tour is absolutely a coup for the fans.

Another album track, although it may not seem like one since it has been an ubiquitous part of John’s concerts through the years, that completely killed on Wednesday was “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” The 11-minute opus, which has often opened John shows, was perfectly deployed as a mid-set reset. The band had just finished a moving take on “Candle in the Wind,” with John’s piano moving from stage right to left. At the conclusion, he stepped away from the piano and off the stage as all the lights darkened.

The unmistakable wind effects — augmented by thunder and rain — and organ dirge of “Funeral For a Friend” cascaded loudly through the dark as wafting smoke swirled around onstage. John reappeared on cue a couple minutes later for the lengthy instrumental section leading into “Love Lies Bleeding,” as his piano slowly rolled back to its original stage right location. It would be hard to overstate the power and glory of this song in a live setting. Of all the songs I will most miss seeing live, if John’s retirement gig holds true, it will be this one.

John’s backing band, all impeccably attired in black suits, white shirts and black ties, was a thrilling component all night, while still staying much in the background. In addition to longtimers Johnstone, Olsson and Cooper, the band was rounded out by Mahon (percussion), Matt Bissonette (bass) and Kim Bullard (keyboards). Their main job is to make John look good, a task they accomplished with aplomb. As John noted during individual introductions, he considers this the best band he’s ever had, and after Wednesday’s performance, he’ll get no argument from me.

The hits flowed freely throughout the evening, with moving renditions of songs like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Daniel” and “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” all making their mark. When you have an artist that set the record with 30 straight calendar years scoring a Top 40 single (from 1970-1999), well, I could fill half the review just recounting the hits John and Co. played. (That’s what the accompanying setlist is for, people! Check it out at the end of this review.)

John really dropped the hammer in closing the main set with a string of riotous romps, including “The Bitch is Back,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” That latter song is often extended several fist-pumping minutes with the audience yelling along to the “Saturday, Saturday” refrain, but on this night, the band pretty much kept it to the truncated recorded version.

While the rollicking run to the main set conclusion was focused on pure energy, the two-song encore was all about poignancy. First up was “Your Song,” the single which broke John in America. That was followed by “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the thematic standard bearer of the entire farewell tour. Suffice to say, these two songs — much like the entire show — did not disappoint.

One line in the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” finale resonated deeply Wednesday night. It was when John sang, “There’s plenty like me to be found.”

I think he’ll forgive me for begging to differ.


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