This writer was not around when rock was young, but it couldn’t have been more fun than Elton John in full timeless flight at Madison Square Garden. Captain Fantastic’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour made the first of six stops at New York City’s most famous venue Thursday night, and any fears that John’s swan song would be a maudlin affair were instantly allayed be the 71-year-old legend’s sequined ringmaster’s tuxedo jacket. Yes, it would be emotional at times — but it would always be fabulous.
John announced his 300-date jaunt at a New York press conference in January on the eve of the 2018 Grammys, where he was honored with an all-star salute. The three-year trek kicked off last month in Allentown, PA, but Madison Square Garden was an eagerly awaited highlight. For years he held the record for playing the midtown auditorium more than any solo artist, and it remains a beloved musical home court. “I’m so happy to be back at my favorite venue in the whole wide world,” he said early on in the set. Indeed, MSG has played host to some of his greatest triumphs. It was here, on Thanksgiving 1974, that he welcomed special guest John Lennon to the stage for what would become his final live performance. It was here, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, that John soothed a traumatized city with stirring renditions of “I Want Love,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” and “Your Song.” It was here, on March 25, 2007, that he celebrated his 60th birthday with a blow out concert bash.
Thursday night was another one for the books.
John’s past quite literally preceded him; ornate carvings depicting important moments and iconography in his story bordered the wrap-around stage, where a black baby grand piano took the spot of honor. Just at 8 p.m. he strolled on to take his seat and beat the pulsating intro to “Bennie and the Jets,” sending a packed crowd — including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, Donna Karan, and Russell Crowe — into a frenzy.
So began an almost three-hour tour through his unparalleled catalogue. Though he opened the show by apologizing for leaving out some favorites, there seemed to be no complaints. There was an emphasis on the classics, to be certain; the most recent song he performed was “Believe” from 1995’s Made in England. A surprising number of (relative) deep cuts from his early ’70s output added a soulful swagger to the proceedings. “Border Song” (performed in tribute to Aretha Franklin), “Take Me to the Pilot,” and “Burn Down the Mission” were met with a rapturous response, as were epics like “Indian Sunset,” “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” and a super-sized “Levon” stretched out to jam band lengths thanks to numerous fiery solos from his impossibly tight band. Decades together have fostered musical telepathy of the highest order — guitarist and bandleader Davey Johnstone has been with John since 1972, virtuoso percussionist Ray Cooper since ’72, and Nigel Olsson since the first US tour dates in 1970.
Sir Elton Hercules John, as his self-given name might suggest, has cultivated an elaborate and multidimensional persona over the course of his nearly 50 years on the global stage. First and foremost he’s rock’s proudest peacock, prone to the opulent, outrageous and occasionally ostentatious. In recent years he’s assumed the role of one of rock’s most respected statesmen, championing charitable causes like the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions to fight HIV over the last quarter century. The knight of the realm has won Oscars, Grammys and Tonys, dines with Presidents and befriends royalty. But watching his effortless gospel runs and furious Jerry Lee Lewis-like hammering onstage at MSG, you’re reminded that beneath the feathers and the fame is one hell of a musician.
He looks like he’s having a ball as he breezes through hit after hit for fans, making it all the more astonishing to think that he’s about to give it up. At the press conference announcing the tour, John cited his family with husband David Furnish as his main reason for stepping back from the road. “We had children,” he said of sons Zachary, 8, and Elijah, 6. “And that changed our lives. In 2015, David and I sat down with school schedule, and I thought ‘I don’t want to miss this.’ I’ve had an amazing life, I’ve had an amazing career… My life has changed, the priorities in my life have changed, my priorities are my children, my husband and my family.”
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On Thursday, he appeared moved as he thanked the audience for “an incredible journey — and one that I will miss very much.” After finishing off the first part of the show with a raucous “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” he returned in a (suitably luxe) bathrobe for an encore. He began by playing “Your Song,” the tender ballad/perennial first wedding dance that introduced him to the public back in 1970. For a final number, he chose “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the song that lent its title to his extensive victory lap.
Despite his intention to retire from touring, John insists that he’ll continue to make new music and create. For a man who has quite literally done it all, it’s exciting to think what he’ll do next.