Call it “The Circle of Life: Concert Edition.”
Elton John was the very first concert I ever attended. Every so often, and for a limited time, he’s also the last.
Such will once again be the case on Wednesday, Sept. 4, when John returns to Salt Lake City for what is being billed as his final time. The “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour will touch down in Vivint Smart Home Arena at 8 p.m.
My very first “Rocket Man” experience was lucky enough to be the second of his two-day stint at Dodger Stadium, on Oct. 26, 1975, nearly 44 long years ago. Wednesday’s show at Vivint Arena will mark the 10th time I’ve caught Sir Elton in concert, and while it would be impossible, really, to match the overall spectacle of the Dodger Stadium concerts — which John always lists among his most magical performances ever — each subsequent show has been memorable in its own right, including the one on Sept. 6, 1984, when John played BYU’s Marriott Center, and arrived at the gig via helicopter touchdown on the baseball field across the street.
The “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour kicked off just under one year ago, on Sept. 8 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Vivint Arena marks the 108th stop in an anticipated 300-plus date itinerary.
It bears noting that Wednesday will mark the opening show on the third leg of the tour, which has been on hiatus since a July 7 concert in Italy. So there is the potential of slight setlist tweaks as the tour begins its second sweep across North America. It also will be interesting to see if Wednesday marks the return of longtime lead guitarist Davey Johnstone, who was replaced on the May-to-July European leg by former E.J. band member John Jorgenson, due to shoulder surgery.
Also keep an eye out for Ray Cooper. The inimitable percussionist, a member of John’s band during key parts of the early 1970s and in various stints since, is fascinating to watch in concert as he attacks and finesses his array of instruments with panache and showmanship.
The elaborate “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” stage production has kept the setlist pretty much identical throughout its run to date — the only real difference of note being the swap out of “Crocodile Rock” for “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”
Setlist studying has been a passion of mine since that very first Dodger Stadium show — where as a 15-year-old rock concert newb I was inexplicably compelled to take a notebook and document the entire proceedings. So you can be certain that in anticipation of Wednesday’s Vivint Arena appearance, I have gone through the tour’s setlist with a gap-toothed comb and come up with the 10 songs I am most looking forward to experiencing live once again.
They are presented here in order of their expected setlist placement.
1. “Bennie and the Jets”
As painted in Bernie Taupin’s timeless lyrics, “Oh Bennie, she’s really keen.” Admittedly, this song has been played out for me over the years, but I can’t shake the fond memories of misheard lyrics from the mind of teenage boys everywhere. (“Wait, you’re telling me the real line is about electric ‘boots‘?”) I also remember a chat with my concerned parents over song lyrics in general and this song in particular. I recited the lyrics to “Bennie” line by line from memory, with the only real raised eyebrow coming from “where we fight our parents out in the streets to find who’s right and who’s wrong.” By opening the show with this song, John will prime the Vivint Arena faithful for the “solid walls of sound” to ensue.
2. “All the Girls Love Alice”
The closing song to Side III of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” this has long been one of my favorite deep tracks. Johnstone’s dirty, powerful distorted lead guitar riff, and Taupin’s gritty lyrics always left me wondering just who I could call my friends down in SoHo. Seeing it live for the first time during a 1982 concert at the Salt Palace was especially memorable because of a pair of false starts as Johnstone’s guitar cut out twice during the opening segment. The third time proved to be the charm. I haven’t seen it too often live over the years —although it did make an appearance during John’s last Salt Lake performance in 2014 when he highlighted a lot of great material from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
3. “Indian Sunset”
The haunting opening track to Side II of “Madman Across the Water,” “Indian Sunset” starts slow before reaching its eventual crescendo as it tells of the demise of a Native American warrior. Another in a litany of storytelling clinics by lyricist Taupin, I once had Jack Blades of Night Ranger sing a line or two of the song to me during a phone interview as we were discussing our shared love of this album. I do not believe I’ve ever seen it performed live before, and its current treatment is as a powerful duet featuring just John and percussionist Cooper in a magnificent eight-minute opus.
4. “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”
Simply stated, this is my favorite song of all time. I vividly recall receiving this album as a present on my 14th birthday. I excitedly unwrapped it that morning before school and couldn’t wait to set needle to vinyl groove. I hurriedly placed it on my turntable and fired up Side I. Lying down on the floor I spread out the double album tri-fold and searched for the lyrics to the opening song. There weren’t any. Meanwhile the eerie winds and organ dirge of “Funeral For a Friend” immediately captured my attention and set a foreboding tone, which then gave way to wonder during the ensuing lengthy piano-driven showcase. When the opening line to “Love Lies Bleeding” jumped unexpectedly from the speakers several minutes later, along with Johnstone’s powerful, raising-hell guitar riffs, well, suffice to say the song had captured my full attention. I couldn’t wait to get home from school that day to listen to it again. Some songs are just meant to be played as concert openers, and this is definitely one of them. But John has gone to that well often throughout his career, certainly opening with this double-whammy more than any other song. So what’s the next best option? Using it to kick off his second act — just like he did at Dodger Stadium. Pure perfection.
5. “Burn Down the Mission”
This early E.J. anthem from “Tumbleweed Connection” has been played sparingly over the years. It was his performance of this song, incidentally, that brought down the house at the Troubadour in John’s U.S. debut in late August of 1970. He did play it at Dodger Stadium, but it’s been largely absent from the setlist over the following decades.
I’m not sure John’s voice was ever better than it was on “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.” There are so many vocally pristine songs on that record, including this one. There’s always been a bit of lyrical open-to-interpretation-ness about “Daniel,” although Taupin has clarified it’s about a wounded Vietnam vet who returns home to unwanted adulation, which he decides to escape by retreating to Spain. (Why Spain? Because it rhymed with “plane,” says Taupin.) John trimmed out the last verse of the song, and its clarifying details, because he thought it was too long.
7. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
“I can’t light, no more of your darkness … all my pictures, seem to fade to black and white” remains one of my favorite opening lines of any song. This tune was the hit that prevailed upon me to actually go out and buy my first full E.J. album, 1974’s “Caribou.” My fascination with that album led to the magic of being able to gradually start collecting everything that John had released up to that point (seemingly getting one album at Christmas and my birthday for years to come). It was a treasure trove of ear candy.
8. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
This song had me at hello with Nigel Olsson’s three-beat drum intro leading into Johnstone’s eminently recognizable guitar riff. The unrelenting tempo paired perfectly with Taupin’s lyrical imagery citing switchblades, motor bikes, braces and boots, handfuls of grease and a best friend who floats in the bottom of a glass. Fist pumping is mandatory and unavoidable in a live setting. I think I’ve seen this in all nine of my previous John concerts — and rightfully so. I can’t imagine a show without it. Perfectly placed in this tour as the closing song before encores.
9. “Your Song”
Indelibly implanted in my concert DNA, this was the first song I ever saw live. John cannot perform a concert without playing “Your Song.” It’s farcical to even ponder it. I still have vivid memories — no doubt enhanced by a corroborative YouTube clip — of John starting “Your Song” at Dodger Stadium, with curtain dropping and his piano rolling from the back part of the stage to the front as he played. “It’s a little bit funny … “ and more than a little reverential to contemplate seeing him do this song live one last time.
10. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
As fate would have it, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was the very first 45 single I ever purchased. It proved to be the genesis of a glorious — at least to me — record collection. As such, it is perfectly apropos that (if things play out as planned in the cynical world of farewell tours) this would be the last song I ever see Sir Elton deliver live. The title track of his best album, John may not be able to sing it in the same vocal register as it was recorded, but it will still be a high point of Wednesday’s farewell concert. John may be wrapping up the touring portion of his career, but I know my future will never lie beyond listening to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”