Elton’s final farewell tour leaves us with an epic two-and-a-half-hour reminder of just how far the Rocketman has flown
At the end of the night, Elton John took off his diamanté dressing gown, boarded a glass stairlift, and rose magically into the sky above the stage. Disappearing behind a screen with a final wave, anyone with a seat high enough in the First Direct Arena caught one more glimpse of him: awkwardly running into a limo waiting backstage, speeding away to beat the city traffic.
As goodbyes go, they don’t get much more grand, absurd or emotional. This is the last time Elton John is playing Leeds. We’ll either remember him transcending into a digital heaven or rushing back to his palace to prepare for Glastonbury. Here, though, John’s peerless legacy spans both – a man hosting his own five-year send-off party with the highest-grossing tour of all time; a way of cementing his place in history as well as a reminder of just how hard-working he still really is.
First booked to play Leeds in 2018, John arrives now five years too late on a wave of good feeling. Playing what feels like a two-and-a-half-hour encore, John has an arena full of feather boas and novelty glasses in his hand from the first beat of ‘Bennie And The Jets’. Not swaying too far from the same setlist he’s been playing throughout the 315 other dates on the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, the evening feels less like a gig and more like a live musical biopic – even ending with a rolling set of film credits to thank the crew.
Playing to a video backdrop that moves through his whole life and career (old family photos, the ’75 Dodgers Stadium show, a guest spot on The Simpsons, Taron Edgerton in Rocketman…), John cherry picks the best bits of an impossibly impressive career partnership with writer Bernie Taupin. Hearing songs like ‘Tiny Dancer’ and ‘Rocket Man’ played live is some kind of magic, and a flawless decade-spanning setlist is another reminder of just how elemental John’s music feels to music history – a second Great American Songbook written by two English blokes with a rare talent for rock’n’roll.
As polished as it all is, the real highlights come when John cuts loose. A long honky-tonk jazz piano outro on ‘Rocket Man’ comes first, then a southern folk jam session on ‘Have Mercy On The Criminal’, ‘Levon’ and ‘Burn Down The Mission’. Now sat at a moving piano that drifts mechanically, oddly, around the huge stage, John suddenly looks like he’s in his 20s again; freewheeling through the best of Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Château and Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player.
Two hours in, people are getting worried that he might run out of time to play the other half dozen hits that are surely non-negotiable. This, though, is the farewell tour – and John’s not leaving anything on the table. A defiant ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ queues up a four-shot of party tracks that he hammers so hard his glasses actually fall off: ‘The Bitch Is Back’, ‘I’m Still Standing’, ‘Crocodile Rock’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’.
Eventually, though, the great glass chairlift beckons. Promising to stay in touch with a blind child in the front row, thanking one guy who’s now been to see him live 101 times, John mounts the crane and starts ascending. ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ has never felt this emotional.
Photo credit: Simone Joyner / Getty