Elton John review – cheers, tears and a stairlift to heaven

Elton John’s hands bang on the piano chords at the start of Bennie and the Jets, the opening number of this valedictory set. Staccato and emphatic, the notes underline John’s first calling as a piano man, one elevated by the wider cultural moment of the early 1970s into a larger-than-life public figure.

Known for so much beyond his songs – from moving the dial on the public perception of HIV/Aids, to successfully suing the Sun for libel, to being Eminem’s unlikely AA sponsor – John is now on the very final leg of a farewell tour that, he promises, is genuinely his last. Tonight, his hands are often displayed on the big screens during a two-plus hour show heavy on fan service, racing dextrously up and down the keys while the singer often glances round the audience, grinning. Every song ends with Elton standing up, just a little stiffly post-hip surgery, to acknowledge his fans.

His mercurial chops are echoed by a great set of fellow players who have been with him, off and on, for years. Given his infamous volatility – not for nothing is one of his more raucous autobiographical tunes called The Bitch Is Back – the patience of this band remains a credit to a complex man. Underneath all the hats and glasses, it’s possible to discern the old-school musician’s musician whose place in what Leonard Cohen called “the tower of song” is assured.

It does feel like several lifetimes ago that Reginald Dwight came up alongside all the other talented rhythm and blues fans of the era, many of whom would join him in household name status. Elton John could match John Lennon for acerbic put-downs; play tit-for-tat pranks with Rod Stewart; did not get on with David Bowie. In his harrowing, must-read 2019 memoir, Me, multiple episodes vie for the prize of “peak Elton”. Was it the time he rang his record company to demand they turn down the wind outside? Or the occasion that he pelted Bob Dylan with oranges for not knowing how to play charades?

Even by John’s maximalist standards, the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour has been a long goodbye. Having begun in 2018 and pausing for Covid, it was dry docked again in 2021 for Elton’s hip replacement. When the road finally ends in Stockholm on 8 July, FYBR will close having broken the record for the highest-grossing tour ever – $800m (£650m), according to estimates.

Given this aversion to things done by halves, it figures that John’s band features not one, but three percussionists: white-gloved drummer Nigel Olsson, plus multi-instrumentalists Ray Cooper and John Mahon on everything from maracas to vibraslap. All the rhythm tonight actually makes Elton’s tunes more ear-ringing, and more nuanced. In this long saunter through the hits, one deep cut – Have Mercy on the Criminal – features a lyrical Mahon xylophone part that vies with Davey Johnstone’s searing electric guitar.

The extended instrumental outro to Rocket Man, meanwhile, is positively crawling with texture and noises off, rejuvenating a song whose anomie can now sometimes feel a little defanged through overexposure. Elton’s voice is in such fine fettle that he constantly projects to the back of the room: showmanship that sometimes robs his singing of emotional light and shade.

Elton John in Birmingham.
Can you hear me at the back? Elton John in Birmingham. Photograph: Photographs by Ben Gibson © 2023 HST Global Limited. Rocket Entertainment

Billed as one of his favourites, Someone Saved My Life Tonight is that rare thing in Elton’s catalogue – a song actually about his own internal weather. Lyricist Bernie Taupin memorialised a very low point in his friend’s life when the miserable younger Dwight was about to marry someone unsuitable; he even attempted suicide in a bid to escape. Oddly, it’s down to Cooper’s ferocious work on the timpani to drive the feeling home.

Candle in the Wind, meanwhile, goes big on footage of Marilyn Monroe – a 20th-century icon, Taupin has said, who really stands in for all the stars who died before their time. Peel back the layers the song has acquired and within this performance is a real and moving sense that Elton realises his good fortune, now able to hang up his outlandish headgear and watch his kids grow up. You do also get the sense of one century very much segueing into another here in Birmingham. However dressed up some of Elton John’s fans are tonight, they’re no match for the elves and pixies thronging the Megacon event at the NEC next door.

Still, you can’t help but warm to this final act by a consummate entertainer, especially in between songs. Palpably thrilled at the endorsement, Elton recounts how moved he was when Aretha Franklin covered his Border Song and later raised the roof at one of his charity gigs not long before she died. When the requisite confetti falls from the ceiling, this veteran of hundreds of arena shows looks genuinely surprised. Then he cracks up.

And when he finally takes his leave – after the disco version of Cold Heart, as remixed by Pnau and Dua Lipa, his most recent hit, and Your Song, his very first one – Elton John ascends into his starry-sky backdrop in a kind of Perspex stairlift. He is both over the top and impishly self-aware to the last.

The Guardian