TACOMA — If this is really goodbye, Elton John’s not going out without having his fun.
Shortly into an oomphed-up “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John, dressed like a sparkly Royal Navy captain who got super into Mozart and camp during his last voyage, spun toward the crowd on his piano seat. His left hand hammering away on his center stage grand piano, the always glam pop superstar flashed a devilish grin to the sold-out Tacoma Dome crowd — for all we know, winking behind those magnificently shimmering spectacles — before returning his full attention to the gleeful rocker.
It wasn’t exactly his old piano handstand (that move’s retired), but you wouldn’t know it from the chorus of “Woos!” the simple stage move elicited from the audience. No doubt, the 72-year-old music icon is a showman till the end.
Settling in Tuesday night during the first of two Tacoma Dome shows amid what John’s said is his last major tour, the over-the-top piano madman seemed more interested in throwing a party for the ages than making his purported last hurrah some sort of career victory lap. John would later explain to the crowd, as he’s said in the media, that after his two-year, 300-some-date Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour he plans to hang up his touring boots to spend time with his husband and their two children.
The 2-hour, 45-minute set was a hits-heavy career retrospective that never came off overly self-congratulatory. The packed house — largely filled with fans of an age typically more inclined to stay seated — was on its feet the second Sir Elton and his exceptional six-piece backing band emerged for a fanciful bop through “Bennie and the Jets,” John playfully striking his keys and hollering at the crowd off-mic, shoveling coals into their fire. A giant bronze stage frame, depicting various Sir Elton iconography (record covers, “The Lion King” and Gucci symbols, a portrait of John and songwriting partner/lyricist Bernie Taupin) wrapped around a massive LED screen behind them as they knocked out classics largely from his 1970s heyday.
“Border Song” had the singer forcefully bellowing in that distinguished lower register his voice has settled into in the latter stages of his career. John might not hit all the notes he once did, but for the most part it didn’t diminish the power of his time-tested songs. These days there’s a hardiness to his voice that carries a different layer of depth and occasional from-the-gut tone that was most noticeable on the ballads like a haunting rendition of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” More than anything, it made these familiar tunes feel as well-lived as an original “Madman Across the Water” pressing.
Big guns like “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man (I Think it’s Going to be a Long, Long Time)” — recognizable whether your intro to Elton was a ’71 Seattle Center Arena show or “The Lion King” — were surefire crowd-pleasers. An extra punchy “The Bitch is Back” was sassier than the tussling Beverly Hills drag queens on the screen behind him, with John throwing a little rasp on the chorus. A slow-cooking boomer “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” went out to “Brandi and Catherine,” Carlile that is. (The home state folk-rocker and country renegade is a noted Elton John fan and was one of the first on her feet last night.)
But for a boomer giant with more Top 10 hits than a streaming-era Drake album (27, for the record), it was often the non-chart-toppers that provided the highest highs. Not exactly deep cuts, as they’ve been live staples for years, a frenetic “All the Girls Love Alice” set the ready-to-boogie vibe early on, while John and his longtime percussionist Ray Cooper’s monstrous two-man run through “Indian Sunset” rumbled through its peaks and valleys harder than those recent thunderstorms. Perched on a riser with enough percussion instruments to fill Neil Peart’s garage, the conga-tapping rhythm master was the band’s semisecret weapon, the polyrhythms lending an underlying sweep-you-off-your-feet funkiness.
The by-now-well-honed reflective moments expected of such end-of-the-line tours, which saw John discussing his relationship with Taupin, their delight in Aretha Franklin covering “Border Song” and regret over not being more vocal during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, felt more humble than indulgent or self-congratulatory. The closest thing to chest-pounding came during a spirited “I’m Still Standing,” with montage-worthy ’80s synths blasting as a career highlight/blooper reel playing behind him.
A rare emotional moment came during a heartfelt thank you to his fans that was neither maudlin nor overly contrived. “I’ve had enough applause to last 10 million lifetimes,” John said getting a tad misty-eyed. “I will miss you.”
With any farewell tour these days, there’s always a question of whether or not it’s truly the last (fool us how many times Kiss, Cher, etc.?). There will always be a promoter with a mountain of cash, and in fairness, John — who plans to continue writing and recording — didn’t rule out doing some sort of residency during a news conference announcing the tour.
Whatever the future holds, Tuesday’s show felt like having one last Saturday night (weekday be damned) out with the flamboyant piano rocker who’d drive you home by dawn in a pastel limo before cruising off toward the pink horizon, another adventure awaiting him. If this really was his last trip to the Seattle-Tacoma area, it was one worth savoring.