Way back in 1970, on his first American-released LP, Elton John sang Bernie Taupin’s words, “Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m 60 years of age?” Seems like a silly question now that Elton’s almost 66; judging from his concert Thursday night at the American Airlines Center, he doesn’t need anyone’s help getting anywhere.
Whatever Elton John does with the rest of his day, for these nearly three hours onstage, he’s a dynamo: singing as richly as ever, pounding the piano keys so hard at times you wonder if his hands are going to fall off, sitting atop the piano and vamping for the audience, getting the crowd to la-la-la-la-la its way through Crocodile Rock — and all the time looking like he’s having a blast doing it.
Nostalgia is inevitable with a singer who’s been around for some 45 years, and for a while it looked like nostalgia might be all this concert was about. For the first hour or so, Sir Elton didn’t play a song released after 1973. A 40th anniversary special edition of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a landmark album for Elton and many fans (including me), is due out this month, and he sported a sequined jacket with a glittering depiction of Road’s album cover on the back.
The concert began with four tracks from it, followed by three from 1971’s Madman Across the Water and a couple from 1972’ Honky Chateau. not that anyone was complaining, when those songs included such favorites as Bennie and the Jets and Levon, both of which got extended versions with lots of extra piano antics from Elton (it just doesn’t sound right to call him “John”), or when the concert started with Road’s lead track, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, an 11-minute showpiece that’s part dirge-to-wake instrumental and part bitter rocker, climaxing with a duel between Elton and longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone that was even more fiery than the one on the recorded version. (Drummer Nigel Olsson, who goes back to the beginning with Elton John, is also in his current band.)
But Elton went so deep into the albums that the nostalgia became fresh. A popular non-single like Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (from Chateau) might not be that big a surprise, but Madman’s jaunty road song Holiday Inn was pleasantly out of left field. (One debit — from where I sat, Johnstone’s mandolin playing, featured on both songs, was all but drowned out by Elton’s piano in the sound mix.)
It was after that first hour, though, that the concert really began to take off, mixing a couple of songs from current album The Diving Board and two ’90s hits ( Believe, and an especially affecting The One, done with just Elton at the piano with his band offstage) in with all the ’70s and early ’80s stuff. The concert still leaned heavily on Yellow Brick Road, but the songs drawn from it — the melodramatic ballad I’ve Seen That Movie Too (featuring a lovely, crying guitar solo from Johnstone), the wistful Roy Rogers and the hard rocker All the Girls Love Alice — are such concert rarities that they almost sounded new in this context.
And then there was the finale — a series of upbeat rockers including I’m Still Standing, The Bitch is Back, the gleefully manic Road cut Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll) and its album companion, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting — each one more rousing than the one before it. As the concert neared the three-hour mark, you had to wonder if Elton was just going to keep going, digging further and further into his extensive songbag.
But he and the band left the stage after Saturday Night, coming back for a brief encore in which Elton signed several autographs at the front of the stage and then played Your Song, dedicating it to the audience. It was only afterward that you realized all he didn’t play — when you’ve got something like 60 Top 40 hits, something’s gotta give. To paraphrase Your Song, his gift is his songs, and he’s got a lot of them for you, and Thursday’s concert was evidence of how invigorating he can still make them.