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Elton John brings piano-thumping good time to refurbished USF Sun Dome

Judy Genshaft, center, University of South Florida president, was in the crowd to watch Elton John perform at the refurbished USF Sun Dome on Friday.
Published Sep. 17, 2012

TAMPA — Looking like a well-fed Wizard of Oz in a green sparkly jacket, Elton John flashed a gap-toothed grin, pointed to the sold-out crowd of 9,951 and pounded into Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting — the first song played in the "new" era of the USF Sun Dome, which looked green 'n' sparkly itself.

Never mind that the college playpen, which underwent a major $35.6 million overhaul, has already staged a few events in its now-shiny digs.

Friday's show was the "official" grand opening, and the 65-year-old Rocket Man christened the refurbed joint with close to three hours of robust hits and gorgeous rarities, all of which swirled deliciously in that new arena smell.

No longer does the Sun Dome, which first opened in 1980, reek like a soggy sweat sock. No longer do the creaky seats and bleachers wreak havoc on your hindquarters. No more does the bleak, skin-bleaching lighting remind you of twisted horror flick Seven.

Pretty much the entire joint — from the toilets to the paint job — has been gutted and revamped.

Yes, it's still an athletic center, and many of the changes, including a monstrous center-hung video scoreboard, will be better appreciated at basketball and volleyball games.

But hey, it sure looked sharp at Elton's show.

The vibe was different, too. USF is a big-time university that deserves a big-time arena. And now, after decades of want, it finally has one.

If you want to break in your new house with pomp and panache, Elton John is certainly a good man for the gig. Backed by a band that at times swelled to 11 pieces, including R&B singers and hunky cello players, the iconic British popster smiled, and mugged, and flirted, all the while churning out monster hits: Bennie and the Jets, Tiny Dancer, Philadelphia Freedom.

For Levon, his pudgy yet tireless fingers worked so quickly, so nimbly, it was obvious he was showing off. And why not? The guy can still bring it.

You knew the hits were coming. But the go-go-go concert reached truly special heights when he dipped into the quirkier pockets of his back catalog.

Grey Seal is a ferocious song, a rousing, crescendoing workout, and the fact that it makes absolutely zero sense does not hamper its infectious energy. He dedicated the fragile Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters to a post-Sept. 11 New York City and "the fortitude of people under duress."

And through it all — a juke-joint version of I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues, a full-tilt-boogie rendition of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding — the piano player worked as if this really were a special night. Honestly? He probably knew he was "somewhere in Florida," and that's about it.

But hey, on this night of fresh starts and sparkly possibilities, why not believe that Sir Elton John, just like the rest of us, was really jacked about the sweet new Sun Dome, too? After all, three decades later, the place is finally pretty darn cool.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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