The sold-out “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” concert at Van Andel Arena on Monday delivered what the piano-pounding rocker does best: dazzling keyboard work, terrific production and enduring songs.
Elton John’s long “Yellow Brick Road” as a rock ’n’ roll superstar has had its share of bumps and potholes, some of them spawned by the usual rock-star pitfalls and vices.
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But mostly, that path has brought nearly a half-century of exhilaration, energizing literally millions of adoring fans from hundreds of stages across the globe.
The pianist, singer and songwriter has accumulated pretty much every award and accolade along the way, while racking up dozens of monster hits and selling hundreds of millions of albums.
So any farewell concert for fans who’ve grown up with this icon and his enduring music is liable to wallow unabashedly in nostalgia, reverence, celebration, a pinch of sappiness and more than a little sadness – all of which were on display Monday night at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena.
Only about five weeks into a lengthy sayonara trek that will crisscross five continents, unfurl 300-plus shows and extend into 2021 (talk about a long farewell), it’s pretty clear that Elton and his band have to pace themselves – or at least, take things one yellow brick at a time. They’ll have to save some of their heartfelt, goodbye emotions for concerts taking place near the end of this road rather than the beginning.
Still, Monday’s show was likely the last live performance by Elton that many West Michigan fans will experience, so the sold-out affair produced healthy doses of exuberance and melancholy for a mostly baby boomer crowd.
“It’s the last time we’re going to play here but we’re going to try to make it memorable,” he told the crowd while sporting bold pink glasses, a glitzy suit and diamond jewelry.
Wedged in between sold-out shows at Detroit’s Little Caesar’s Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Grand Rapids tour stop gave fans a 2-hour-and-35-minute, 24-song ride that leaned heavily on his 1970s catalog but also spanned a robust career that officially began in 1969 with release of “Empty Sky” and really took off with 1970’s “Elton John.”
Kicking off with the crowd-pleasing “Bennie and the Jets” and hard-rocking fave “All The Girls Love Alice” – both from the 1973 classic double-album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Sir Elton Hercules John delivered a wholly satisfying finale with impressive pacing, balancing piano ballads with rousing rockers, extended jams and, yes, eye-popping keyboard work.
A MOBILE GRAND PIANO, THEATRICAL PERCUSSIONIST AND PERSONAL COMMENTARY
For his final Van Andel Arena appearance, the 71-year-old Elton didn’t move all that much, but his grand piano did – crossing the stage from left to right during “Candle in the Wind” and again during the encore.
And while his mobility isn’t what it used to be, his keyboard solos have grown ever more impressive in recent years, and the enduring songs he wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin continue to inspire and electrify audiences
Of course, it helps that he’s backed by razor-sharp guitarist and music director Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson, percussionists Ray Cooper and John Mahon, keyboardist Kim Bullard and bassist Matt Bissonette, with a high-tech video screen as a backdrop.
In particular, Johnstone, Olsson and Cooper – whose theatrical embellishments are wildly entertaining – have worked with Elton for decades, so their transitions and accents are seamless, something that hasn’t changed.
But one thing certainly was different on Monday: I’ve seen Elton some 20 times over several decades, from solo shows with Cooper at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium to a stadium show at the old Pontiac Silverdome to every concert he’s ever played in Grand Rapids.
And I’ve never seen him as personable as he was during his farewell to Grand Rapids, revealing more of himself than at any other concert I’ve seen, telling stories about how certain songs were written and even getting political with passionate descriptions of the AIDS crisis and work with his Elton John AIDS Foundation (#loveisthecure) and showing real gratitude for the career that fans have given him.
He told the ebullient crowd that nothing for a musician compares to “playing live to another human being,” something that’s allowed him to take an “incredible journey” over the past five decades.
“Without you people, I wouldn’t be up here,” he conceded late in the show. “I would like to say thank you for everything you’ve done for me. It’s been the most incredible life imaginable.”
And later, “I’ll miss you guys.”
The feeling certainly was mutual, with the energetic audience of 12,000 oozing love for this superstar even before the concert’s first note, then cheering him long after he rode a motorized platform out of sight after the encore (which, frankly, looked WAY too much like a walker).
PRAISING MICHIGAN, ARETHA AND GRETA VAN FLEET
Elton did more than just acknowledge his affection for Grand Rapids and an arena he’s played on numerous occasions. He also praised Michigan’s role as a major influence on pop music, specifically noting how he and Taupin were beyond thrilled in 1970 when they learned that the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, had decided to cover “Border Song” from “Elton John.”
And when he and the band then launched into that very tune, it almost seemed like Elton was channeling the fiery passion of the late Aretha herself – the kind of singing that can raise the hair on the back of your neck.
Later, he went a step further, citing the likes of Motown, Jack White and Bob Seger as important Detroit icons, then dedicating “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to none other than Frankenmuth-bred, hard-rock upstarts Greta Van Fleet (who performed with Elton at his Academy Awards party earlier this year).
“I think they’re amazing,” Elton crowed. “This one’s for them.”
Amazing – a word Elton used often on Monday – also could describe his renditions of most songs in the set list: the rarely played “Indian Sunset” from “Madman Across the Water” (performed as a duo with Cooper), an extended “Rocket Man” (which Elton has played differently every time I’ve seen him), “Levon” (which must have lasted 12 minutes, with Johnstone and Elton trading solos), “Funeral for a Friend” (amid stage fog and video-screen candles), “The Bitch is Back” (a rollicking hit which never fails to elicit a broad grin from Elton).
And I guess it’s only apropos that Elton’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour stop in Grand Rapids would wrap up with, yes, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and the line: “I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.”
That he has.
And West Michigan fans can feel fortunate that the road wound past Grand Rapids one last time.
PHOTO GALLERY: Elton John at Van Andel Arena
Photos by Anthony Norkus
SET LIST: Elton John at Van Andel Arena (10/15/18)
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
Copyright 2018, Spins on Music LLC