Photos by Isabelle Haubrich
The whole Elton John thing never should have worked. Some piano player who got sent lyrics through the mail, sat down to write the music at his piano and then played and sang the resulting songs, in the process becoming one of the biggest music stars on the planet? If that was pitched as the treatment for a movie, it would get laughed off the lot. In fact, it wouldn’t even have made it into the exec’s in-tray in the first place. But that’s pretty much the essence of the Elton John story and now, 50 years on, he’s touring the globe for one triumphant last lap with his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. We’ve just had the biopic, Rocket Man, and now the man himself has started the Australian leg of his final world tour with a date at HBF Park in Perth. And what a date it was!
How do you cover old ground without sounding tired and clichéd? Just ask Elton John.
Musicians and promoters have pretty much nailed the stadium show these days. You get consistently excellent light, sound and big-screen visuals to compensate for the size of the venue. So it was last night with Sir Elton John’s first show on the Australia and New Zealand leg of his final tour. What set this apart from pretty much every other stadium show was that, in the moments during the set when Elton sat alone at his piano, big screens in darkness, he was able to make a massive arena feel intimate. The only sound was his piano and voice, there was no competition from the massive crowd. People were so rapt that, in the spaces between the music, you could have heard the heartbeat of the person sitting next to you. And, at times, you could almost hear people in the stadium wiping away a tear as they contemplated life without another Elton John tour.
But they were joyous tears for the most part as Elton and his band took us through a rapturous trip through his extensive back catalogue, hitting many peaks along the way and leaving the audience wanting more. For that, the show was pretty much perfect, as written in the smiling faces of 20,000 punters leaving a stadium knowing they’d just seen a musical legend perform for the last time, but hoping, just a little, that he might go back on his promise.
Opening the night with ‘Benny And The Jets’ and then segueing into ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’, Elton started as he meant to carry on, with all the bombast and showmanship that he’s owned for half a century. From there, it just didn’t let up. And, for anyone who thought that, over the 300 dates of his farewell tour, he might just phone it in occasionally, Elton played every song like he meant it, like it might just be the last time he got to play for an audience. Which is the point, of course.
There were many sublime moments during the set.
‘Rocket Man’ ended with a revamped arrangement that played off John’s piano licks against David Johnstone’s acoustic guitar. It was the moment in the set when audience knew they were going to get exactly what they came for — mostly the hits, interspersed with some deep cuts — but that every song was going to be rendered as freshly as the day it was first played live. How do you cover old ground without sounding tired and clichéd? Just ask Elton John.
Introducing ‘Indian Sunset’, John spoke about his enduring partnership with lyricist, Bernie Taupin, saying, “He would send me the lyrics and I’d read them and see them like a movie, know what genre and tempo the song would be. Then I’d put my hands on the keyboard and hope for the best.” In the process of course, John and Taupin rewrote the definitions of both ‘hope’ and ‘best.’
In the instrumental outro to ‘Levon’ Elton and long-time collaborator, guitarist David Johnstone, traded licks in an extended jam that reminded us all just how good a piano player John is, an attribute that can sometimes get lost among the singer-songwriter-showman thing that he’s developed throughout his career. John has to be one of the world’s greatest piano players. Hardly seems fair, really, but there it is.
And the way he pushed away his mic so he could attack the piano keyboard, hitting the notes with his best sex face on. No wonder the guitar was always a bit of an add on in his bands over the years. Not that Johnstone isn’t the equal of John on his chosen instrument, but piano ruled on stage tonight and quite rightly so.
There was the footage of Marilyn Munro on the big screens during ‘Candle In The Wind’, reminding us all just how beautiful and heartbreaking those times were and then, later in the set, the video for ‘The Bitch Is Back’ accompanying the live rendition, showing us an equally beautiful and absurd slice of life.
Introducing ‘Daniel’, John paused to reflect on his sobriety and humanitarian work, saying, “I wanted to put my life back in balance. I wanted to feel decent again as a human being. In the 80s I didn’t feel like I’d done enough as a gay man to stop the rise of AIDS. So I set up the Elton John AIDS Foundation…The world could do with a little bit more love right now.”
By the time Elton and his band hit ‘Crocodile Rock’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, pretty much the whole audience was up and dancing and no one was going to stop them riding the crest of the wave coming off the purpose-built stage. Sure, there were tears at the end, including from Elton himself, but people left happy. They’d just been entertained by one of the best and, added bonus, seen him perform one of his best ever shows.
Towards the end of the generous three-hour set, Elton told his audience, “I’ve had enough applause to last me a million lifetimes.” It didn’t stop him from asking the audience for more at the close of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ the final song of a two-song encore that also took in ‘Your Song’. A request they were very willing to rise to, as the whole stadium farewelled a by now tracksuited Sir Elton as he left the stadium making his way down said Yellow Brick Road, heading towards a life of fatherhood and family bliss. For those who haven’t seen the show yet, I’ll leave it there, it’s a beautiful touch that you need to see for yourselves.
Suffice to say, 20,000 fans of all ages went home sated, knowing they’d witnessed a never-to-be-repeated rock and roll event, but still wanting more.
Who knows? All we know is Elton John is welcome back in our town any time.