Lately, it seems as if nothing ever really ends in this era of endless pop-culture reboots, reimaginings and reconfigurings. Therefore, the notion of a definitive conclusion carries more weight these days than it might otherwise.
That air of finality permeated Elton John’s Friday night performance at American Airlines Center, the first of two sold-out shows performed here as part of his staggering, three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. (Friday’s turn was his first North Texas appearance in four years and his penultimate show for 2018.)
While the conceit of a pop superstar’s farewell is a well-worn cliché by now, whatever skepticism anyone may have felt entering the arena surely dissipated by the time the man born Reginald Dwight ascended up, into the enormous screen behind the stage, waving goodbye to the roaring crowd.
It was a genuinely poignant moment, and one that pierced the splashy, spendy sensory overload dominating the night to that point.
Indeed, if 71-year-old Elton John is well and truly finished with touring, he gave us, and himself, one helluva send-off.
Situated upon a stage backed by an enormous video screen, literally framed by moments from his life and career (you could spot images of lyricist Bernie Taupin, The Lion King, Leon Russell, John’s album covers and much more in the frame), John relied upon gimmicks sparingly — only fog and confetti filled the room Friday — and let the David LaChapelle-directed videos do most of the visual heavy lifting.
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The 24-song setlist spanned much of the Grammy winner’s 50 years in music, although, curiously, it wandered no further back than 1995’s Made in England, depriving those gathered of basking in any of John’s late period renaissance, like 2001’s masterful Songs from the West Coast, or his stirring Leon Russell collaboration, 2010’s The Union.
Such observations seem like quibbling with what was, on balance, a fine survey of his inescapable pop hits — the show-opening “Bennie and the Jets,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock” and a half-dozen others — and a few deeper cuts, such as “Indian Sunset” and “Border Song.”
(John, in high spirits, acknowledged up-front the thankless task of selecting which material to highlight: “It was very hard to put together a setlist … If I left out your favorite song, I apologize.”)
John’s exquisite tenor and falsetto have vanished over time, but even with songs adjusted for his current, huskier baritone range, he performed with a gusto belying his stature. (Bassist Matt Bissonette and percussionist John Mahon deftly helped fill in the high notes.)
Icons, particularly those in the midst of gradual goodbyes, can often take their feet off the gas pedal. John, backed by an airtight sextet featuring several longtime collaborators like drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionist Ray Cooper and guitarist Davey Johnstone, showed no interest in taking it easy.
He was in fine, ferocious form from the opening moments, taking beloved tracks like “All the Girls Love Alice” or “Take Me to the Pilot,” and attacking them with surprising vigor.
There were several breathtaking highlights, not least of which was the extended “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the opening track of his 1973 masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Building from rumbling-thunder sound effects and thick fog, John and his bandmates tore into the track and rode the majestic song, full of baroque flourishes, to an epic, pulse-quickening conclusion.
It isn’t too often you actually feel as if your mind has been blown, but mine was after John, clad in one of several of his Gucci-designed outfits, brought the song to a halt, slamming his palm on top of his piano, a satisfied grin on his face.
That visual confirmation that John is having just as much fun as he ever has manifested itself a little earlier in the night, during an extended coda for “Rocket Man.” There was a mixture of focus and frivolity dancing across John’s face, his fleet fingers on the piano keys reflected in his glasses, as he repeatedly played two notes, teasing out an ending his bandmates picked up on.
In that moment, he was finding ways to surprise himself — a fresh approach to a very familiar tune — gliding along the melody, but almost seeming to create anew.
The crowd, ranging in age from young to old, but all of whom were deeply engaged with the music being made, sang along to nearly every song, filling the spaces in between with shouts of adoration.
Such devotion clearly touched the British singer-songwriter, who, late in the evening, acknowledged the bond forged over so many decades: “It’s been an amazing, amazing life I’ve had. … Ask any musician, and they’ll tell you: The greatest thing you can do is play for another human being and get a reaction. You have given me the most incredible experiences of my life. Thank you.”
That feeling is mutual. There were moments Friday when I found myself slightly overwhelmed watching someone whose music has occupied — and will continue to occupy — a prominent place in my life.
I have listened to Elton John’s albums from my earliest days, and his songs never age — pick any albums from his mid-1970s or late-1980s prime and they’re as fresh now as then — but the man singing them is only human.
Nevertheless, the music will endure, even as he rightly makes room for other pursuits, namely spending time with his husband, David Furnish, and their young children.
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Still, that there was room for so much — “Border Song” and “Believe” allowed John to highlight his political beliefs and advocacy work; “Philadelphia Freedom” provided a moment to showcase his championing of LGBTQ causes; “I’m Still Standing” gave a sweetly campy overview on screen of his myriad appearances in various TV and film roles — and that Friday’s performance still felt so briskly paced, speaks to his unimpeachable skills as a showman.
That the concert also felt so invigorating and so poignant again speaks to the tricky nature of pop-cultural conclusions.
Yet, knowing there is a terminus — one awaiting us all, and which, if we are lucky, we get some say in — makes occasions such as Friday night’s extraordinary showcase all the sweeter.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.