Elton John was about two-thirds of the way though his set on the opening night of his farewell tour at Allentown, Pennsylvania’s PPL Center when he paused the tell the audience why he’s calling it quits. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve given to me these past 50 years,” he said. “But I have the most beautiful family and I really need to spend more time with them. I know you understand since a lot of you have children of your own. I just want to be there for them and that’s why I’m doing this tour. It’s to say thank you and say goodbye to touring.”
But it wouldn’t be John’s style to go out with a small, quiet, understated show. As promised, the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour is the most bombastic, elaborate, high-tech arena show he’s ever attempted. And even though much of the setlist is familiar fare, he’s paired many of the songs with new videos by the likes of photographer David LaChapelle and animator Alan Aldridge that provide new perspective on the tunes. Knowing also that this is the last chance to hear him play the hits (even though he’ll be doing this through 2021) adds a sense of gravitas to every song of the night, down even to “Crocodile Rock” and “The Bitch Is Back.”
He kicked off the night with a raucous “Bennie and the Jets” that led right into the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road deep cut “All the Girls Love Alice,” which is certainly the best song every written about a teenage lesbian prostitute discovered dead on a subway. “Border Song” – which was dedicated to the late Aretha Franklin who so memorably covered it shortly after its 1970 release – was paired with a video where young people had images of everyone from Rosa Parks to Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley projected onto their shirts.
“Tiny Dancer” followed with a video where a woman struggled to stay sober, a teenage girl scattered an urn of ashes in a body of water and a mother danced with her baby near an airport runway. They all embodied the spirit of Bernie Taupin’s “blue jean baby” in ways he never could have imagined when he wrote the tune back in 1971. A chair was reserved for the longtime lyricist near the soundboard, meaning this was likely as emotional a night for him as it was for John.
Just when it seemed like this would mostly be a greatest hits revue, every member of the backing band besides percussionist Ray Cooper left the stage and John sang the opening notes of the Madman Across The Water obscurity “Indian Sunset” sans instrumentation. The song – which chronicles a doomed Native American fighting in vain against the American government in the 19th century – is usually only played in Las Vegas or other small venues. For many in the audience, it was a bathroom break or a chance to go on Instagram, but to the Elton faithful it was a wonderful gift and a perfect display of Cooper’s many talents.
John won the crowd back with “Rocket Man,” complete with a psychedelic video of a spaceship soaring through the cosmos, and an emotional “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” displaying a visual of cartoon 1970s Elton literally entering a pinball machine trapped inside a silver ball. It was a great way to symbolize the chaos that erupted in his life once he became a famous rock star.
There’s no real break between sets, but after “Candle In The Wind” – featuring a new David LaChapelle movie that recreates Marilyn Monroe’s final photo shoot with Bert Stern – the group left the stage and the sounds of a brutal thunderstorm echoed through the arena. Amidst a sea of blue light and smoke, John re-emerged for an epic “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” It’s his sole dip into prog rock waters, and the song that inadvertently gave birth to Use Your Illusion-era Guns N’ Roses. It’s also perhaps John’s best live song and a great showcase for the talents of his longtime backing band, particularly guitarist Davey Johnstone.
“Welcome to part two of Farewell Yellow Brick Road,” John said when it was done. “One of my favorite albums is The Tumbleweed Connection. One day I’m going to sit down and maybe play it all the way through … [pausing just long enough torture us Tumbleweed obsessives] to myself.” In the meantime, it was great to hear a long rendition of “Burn Down The Mission” and a video showing John’s piano bursting into flames.
Up until this point, John hadn’t touched any material after 1983. But after a brief speech about the Elton John AIDS Foundation, he played a powerful rendition of 1995’s “Believe” as images of all the great work the foundation does across the globe played on the enormous HD screen. It was the only hint of the night that John had any sort of recording career after Breaking Hearts hit shelves during Reagan’s first term in office.
The musician followed that with a parade of mega-hits, including “Daniel,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “I’m Still Standing” and an inevitable “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” that had a fun video of famous movies fights featuring Raiders of the Lost Ark, Airplane! and Kung Fu Panda. John came back out in a robe for a sing-along “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with a slideshow of photos from his entire life arranged in chronological order.
As the final notes rang out, John removed the robe and revealed that he was wearing a simple track suit. He then stepped into a hot air balloon passenger compartment (minus the actual balloon) and vanished into the blackness behind the video wall. The Wizard of Oz had left Oz, though in reality this was just the first show of a grueling three-year tour that will take him around the world many times over. If he’s able to keep up the energy and joy of the first show, it’s going to be one hell of a way to say goodbye.
Elton John – Farewall Yellow Brick Road Set List
1. “Bennie and the Jets”
2. “All the Girls Love Alice”
3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”
4. “Border Song”
5. “Tiny Dancer”
6. “Philadelphia Freedom”
7. “Indian Sunset”
8. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”
9. “Take Me to the Pilot”
10. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
12. “Candle in the Wind”
13. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”
14. “Burn Down the Mission”
17. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”
18. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”
19. “The Bitch Is Back”
20. “I’m Still Standing”
21. “Crocodile Rock”
22. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”
23. “Your Song”
24. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”