Review: Elton John wows Pittsburgh audience in farewell show
Elton John has seemingly been everywhere lately.
Last summer his life story in movie form “Rocketman” hit theaters. Last month his autobiography “Me” landed on bookstore shelves. A big part of the book is John’s brutally frank descriptions of how substance abuse messed up his life.
Wednesday night he was in Pittsburgh as part of his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. And while he’s played the Steel City many times, on this occasion the capacity crowd of nearly 20,000 at PPG Paints Arena must have felt a greater depth of understanding of the man born as Reg Dwight. All of it the result of the multimedia soul-baring that he has engaged in during the past year.
In fact, at one point in the show, John sat at his piano and engaged the audience in a “Come-to-Jesus moment,” discussing his past struggles with drugs and alcohol.
“Eventually I came to the decision to ask for help,” he said. “When I did that I became alive again, my spirit and my soul began to come alive again. If any of you out there are struggling with something that you are ashamed of and you don’t want to tell anyone, it’s a waste of time. You’re just killing yourself. Ask for help. Ask someone to help you. Share your troubles. I got kindness from people I’ve never met and I got sober and I got clean and I began to turn my life around.”
John went on to say that overcoming his own demons inspired him to do more to help those living with HIV.
“I’m incredulous,” said John. “To think that people are still getting kicked out of their homes by their families because they are HIV-positive. Shame on you people! Shame on you! Hiding behind the church. You’re no more Christian than Adolf Hitler, you guys. Sorry.”
The crowd roared its approval and it was certainly clear that if John hadn’t gotten help, he wouldn’t have been able to put on the kind of crowd-pleasing performance he gave last night. Though he wisely backed off the high notes in songs like “Tiny Dancer” and “Crocodile Rock” (he had his fans fill in the “la, la, la, las” on that one), his voice was strong. That came across especially in “Philadelphia Freedom,” a song that is a much better fit for his current vocal range.
And despite being 72, John brought energy and passion to the nearly three-hour performance that is impressive for a man of any age.
The show began with a big, bouncy, extra funked-up version of “Bennie and the Jets.” John emerged wearing a black sequined frock coat with matching pants, each lined with red piping on the flared lapels and pant legs. He wore a dangly silver earring in his right ear and thick-rimmed, green sparkly glasses.
“Good evening, Pittsburgh. It’s cold outside but it’s going to be hot in here,” he said, before launching into “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.”
He then introduced “Border Song” by talking about how Aretha Franklin’s cover version of the tune bolstered the spirits of John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin as they struggled in their early days. “It gave us confidence that someone as great as her would cover it.”
There were videos displayed on a giant screen behind the stage to accompany many of the songs. John had apparently solicited filmmakers to submit them. But for the most part they merely distracted from the songs. One of the exceptions was a beautifully ethereal video of the Earth as seen from space by Majid Adin during “Rocket Man.” The song featured a lovely ending with sparkling piano notes balanced against exquisite acoustic guitar playing by Davey Johnstone.
There was a rich, introspective and appropriately melancholic version of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” the song that fit surprisingly well into the soundtrack of the movie “Slap Shot.” This live version included a lovely tubular bells accompaniment.
John introduced “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” as being the most personal song on his most personal album, “Captain Fantastic.” It came with the best video of the night, a brilliant animated piece that had a “Yellow Submarine” feel to it.
It was followed by a version of “Levon” that might have been the best song of the evening, evolving into an amazing jam session with Johnstone trading off hot licks with Sir Elton in a honky-tonk-style stomp that included Johnstone channeling the opening chords of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and even sampling some of the refrain from “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”
After John played a dutiful version of “Candle in the Wind,” he changed into a pale blue suit with black velvet collar and sequins with a pink, ruffled shirt and matching pink shoes during a prolonged sound effects storm leading into “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” John opened the song gliding across the stage on a now-moving piano that seemed to be floating on the abundance of fog.
It was hard to top that, but John might have done that with the much anticipated “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” saved for the encore finale.
Before he closed the show, John announced that this would be his final appearance in Pittsburgh.
“This is our final show tonight in Pittsburgh,” he said. “We won’t be coming back. And I would like to thank you, because you have given me since 1970, so much loyalty, so much kindness, so much generosity, I don’t know how I could possibly thank you. I don’t know how I could forget you. You’re in my soul, you’re in my heart, every fiber of my being and I love you dearly.”
1. “Bennie and the Jets”
2. “All the Girls Love Alice”
3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
4. “Border Song”
5. “Tiny Dancer”
6. “Philadelphia Freedom”
7. “Indian Sunset”
8. “Rocket Man” (“I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long, Time”)
9. “Take Me to the Pilot”
10. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”
11. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
13. “Candle in the Wind”
14. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”
15. “Burn Down the Mission”
17. “I Want Love”
18. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”
19. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
20. “The Bitch is Back”
21. “I’m Still Standing”
22. “Crocodile Rock”
23. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
24. “Your Song”
25. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].