Exactly where Elton John’s yellow brick road will eventually end, no one but Elton really knows. A London or Las Vegas residency? A series of one-off shows around the globe, each yielding a million-dollar paycheck? A quaint and quiet retirement with his family?
Wherever it ends, it won’t be the end. Can’t be. Not given the full-throated farewell Sir Elton gave Amalie Arena Monday night in a long, long, long-awaited final tour stop in Tampa.
For nearly three hours, ol’ Reg had fans spanning three or four generations up and roaring, screaming and sobbing, proffering countless standing Os as he tickled, pounded and flat-out pulverized his ivories one last time. Between numbers he stood up from his piano, wagging his arms and pointing his fingers and exhorting the crowd to keep standing and hollering all night. It wasn’t just one of the hottest Tampa concert tickets of the year, it was also, perhaps unexpectedly, one of the loudest, in volume as well as in style. But then, when has subdued ever been Sir Elton’s bailiwick?
As farewell tours go — and the world has seen its fair share lately — it felt like John, 72, was making a hearty case that he’s not washed up, was never even close to washed up, and could keep doing this as long as he pleases, should he decide he’s got a few more golden bricks left to lay.
“We hope you enjoy what you see and what you hear,” the bedazzled, beglittered John told the sold-out crowd of 17,000, a hint and a half of mischief in his voice.
No problem there, considering how long those fans have been waiting.
It has been 650 days since John first announced his farewell tour stop in Tampa, and nearly a year since that show was postponed at the last minute due to an ear infection. It has been 35 years since 1984, when John brought what he said at the time would be his final tour to the USF Sun Dome; and even longer since John made his Tampa debut back in 1971, up at Curtis Hixon Hall, less than a mile’s walk from Amalie Arena.
The world has changed a lot in those 48 years, when you could buy an Elton John ticket for $3.50 at Sears. Floor seats Monday were going for as much as $2,500 on the resale market, a staggering testament to how irreplaceable a figure John is.
Sparkling in a tux festooned with red, silver and blue sequins, earrings dangling at his shoulders, John seemed in no mood for soapy, sentimental schmaltz, careening from the drunken stomp of Bennie and the Jets into the intense, thumping soul of All the Girls Love Alice. Even when he ever so briefly got reflective — reminiscing on the thrill of hearing Aretha Franklin cover Border Song, say, or the challenge of adapting Bernie Taupin’s cinematic lyrics for Indian Sunset — it felt like he was just waiting to lower his head and batter the next song head-on.
He swung from an absolute monster of a finale on Rocket Man, an epic, soaring final run and chorus that actually felt like a multidimensional voyage through the cosmos into a dazzling, finger-flaying solo to kick off Take Me to the Pilot. For Funeral for a Friend and Love Lies Bleeding, the house went dark as the stage transformed into a deafening thunderstorm, as John changed suits and rode back out with his grand piano drifting across the stage through a pillowy bed of smoke.
With a half-century of hits in his quiver, John had fans standing for every number. They swayed and sobbed for ballads like Tiny Dancer (cue the bawling), Your Song and the mighty Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. They shimmied as John’s fingers popped and pounced off his ivories on puckish, punkish kissoffs like The Bitch Is Back and Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. And woe be unto the few party poopers who didn’t la-la-la-la-la right along on Crocodile Rock. Sure, Florida’s gator country, but come on!
John’s forceful performance was pushed and matched by his band, who juked and deked with syncopated swing all over songs like the gospel rave-up Burn Down the Mission and the twinkly Daniel. They all glittered on a raucous, extended Delta-soul jam sesh on Levon, complete with bongo breakdowns and lickety-split bass solos. Somewhere, Leon Russell was looking down and smiling.
This farewell tour is a lush visual experience, but would Elton fans expect anything less? Many songs came with their own mini-movie splashed across a lavish stage and backdrop. Neon, LaChappellian dancers pouncing amid the disco-symphony strings of Philadelphia Freedom. Surrealist cartoon-pinball fantasies on Someone Saved My Life Tonight. A short film starring a nude-ish Marilyn Monroe lookalike for Candle in the Wind. The videos, for the most part, weren’t entirely about Elton, at least not on the surface (the colorful I’m Still Standing career-highlight reel being a worthy exception). But they were all little windows into the art that made (and still makes) Elton, Elton.
As is often the case with these years-long farewell tours, you started to wonder: Is this really the end for Sir Elton? For real? After all, he has already started double-dipping into a handful of North American cities — after playing what fans must have assumed would be his final Jacksonville show in March, John recently announced he’d be back in Duval next June.
“I never thought in a million years this would happen the way it’s happened,” he said. “I’ve been so touched throughout this whole journey with your love, your kindness, your generosity, your loyalty. I will never forget you. You’re in my soul, you’re in my heart, you’re in every fiber of my being. How could I ever forget?”
Maybe he really will remember. We tend to think of lengthy fare-thee-wells like Elton’s in terms of their destination — the end — but this is really a grand, gilded journey worth savoring. Brick by shining, yellow brick.