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Review: Elton John’s farewell tour is so breezy, it hardly feels like goodbye

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JAN 22, 2019. Rock legend Elton John acknolwdges the applause from a sold-out
Elton John performing Tuesday night at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

You have to love Elton John’s idea of a sizzle reel.

As shown on an enormous screen Tuesday night at Staples Center, where the veteran pop star was playing the first local date on a world tour he says will be his last, the carefully edited video package synchronized John’s performance of his song “I’m Still Standing” to highlights from his half-century-long career.

We saw him accepting an Academy Award. We saw him onstage in his famously bedazzled Dodgers uniform. And we saw that time a few years ago when he tried to sit down at a tennis match — then immediately tumbled out of his chair.

“Looking like a true survivor,” he sang, before adding, “Feeling like a little kid.”

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John’s inclusion of the embarrassing moment was in keeping with the sense of humor that’s always distinguished the singer’s work.

It was especially welcome, though, at this show, which might’ve been a far more pompous affair. John’s tour — called Farewell Yellow Brick Road after the smash 1973 album with which it almost shares a title — launched last year and is scheduled to run through the end of 2020; its marketing material refers to John’s having “redefined the cultural landscape” and his readiness to “fully embrace the next important chapter of [his] life.” (He’ll return to Staples on Wednesday, Friday and Jan. 30 then move to the Forum for two nights next week.)

But if you walked in fearing a self-congratulating slog — can you tell I was worried? — that’s not what John had in mind.

Over a breezy 2½ hours, the 71-year-old zipped through two-dozen hits (and a couple of oddities); told some funny, well-rehearsed stories about his ambitions and achievements; and changed costumes only frequently enough to suggest he won’t be spending his retirement wearing sweatpants.

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For all the buildup, in other words, Tuesday’s gig turned out to be a relatively low-key delight.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JAN 22, 2019. Rock legend Elton John opens with “Bennie and Jets” during the f
Elton John says his current world tour will be his last.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Oh, John got some bragging in, of course: The concert opened with “Bennie and the Jets,” or rather with that song’s first chord, which he let hang in the air for a moment, confident the capacity crowd knew what was coming.

And before he played “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” he took some time to point out that no less an admirer than Lady Gaga was in the house — and on the same day she was nominated for her own Oscars.

But mostly he let his music speak for itself. Backed by players who’ve been with him for decades — including guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson — John moved with seeming effortlessness from the rootsy “Tiny Dancer” to the disco-flecked “Philadelphia Freedom” to “Levon,” which made you wonder once again how this brainy English guy internalized the language of American soul music.

Introducing “Border Song,” he recalled being told ages ago that Aretha Franklin planned to cover the tune, which he wrote, like nearly all his songs, with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

“You could imagine how we reacted — we were so dumbfounded,” he said. Yet his performance here, with its gloriously churchy piano, made clear why Franklin was drawn to “Border Song”; it showed off John’s deep understanding of genre even as his singing, lower and bluesier than in the past, made the music feel utterly personal.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - JAN 22, 2019. Rock legend Elton John opens with “Bennie and Jets” during the f
Elton John opens his performance with a fan-favorite, "Bennie and the Jets."
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Though John has recorded frequently in recent years, he’s keeping these shows focused on the old stuff. (His set list is so constant night to night that he made it into a playlist on Spotify.) The newest song he did on Tuesday was “Believe,” from 1995, which he preceded with some talk about the “extraordinary healing power of love and compassion.”

“For people who treat people with disdain because of their color, their sexuality, I have nothing but contempt,” he said — a contradiction, perhaps, but not one that appeared to trouble Lady Gaga, who stood from her highly visible seat near the stage to applaud John’s comments.

After “Believe,” John strung together some of his most well-known songs — “The Bitch Is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” — in a wham-bam sequence that further demonstrated both the range and the economy of his music.

The only downside of John’s reluctance to get more grandiose was that the concert didn’t exactly define what farewell means to him; this was more or less the same experience he offered when he came to Staples in 2014 on a tour called All the Hits.

I’m not saying I wanted him to weep during “Candle in the Wind” or to showcase every one of his albums in reverse chronological order, beginning with 2016’s completely forgettable — hold on, let me check Wikipedia — “Wonderful Crazy Night.”

But leaving it all behind must be doing a number on him, right?

Maybe it just hasn’t hit him yet. As he inevitably closed Tuesday’s show with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” John climbed onto a mechanical platform that carried him through an opening in the video screen at the rear of the stage — going off into the digital sunset, I suppose.

Then, once he was out of view, the screen flickered back to life with the trailer for an upcoming Elton John biopic called — what else? — “Rocketman.”

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He’ll sell tomorrow after he’s finished selling today.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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