Music

Elton John bids farewell to Pittsburgh in final Steel City performance

It seems we’ve been down this Yellow Brick Road before.

Elton John brought his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road, The Final Tour” to PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Friday night.

“It’s our last time in Pennsylvania, so we’ve got to make it extra special,” John said.

He certainly did.

John didn’t need to win over his exuberant fans but, perhaps in an effort to do that, he came onto the stage at 8:05 pm wearing a black-and-gold outfit, a black frock coat with “EJ” embroidered on the back and pink lapels and black pants trimmed with gold sequins.

Of course, John wore his trademark oversized glasses — pink lenses with rhinestones dotting the pink frames and a silver ear ring in his right ear.

As good as they looked, John and company sounded even better. John began the show with a funky, high-energy version of “Bennie and the Jets,” featuring extra fancy piano flourishes that had the fans hooting and hollering.

The song set the tone for the evening. The front-row fans never sat down while John never took his foot off the gas, bringing high energy and strong, wide-ranging vocals to the performance along with his usual pristine piano playing.

Next up was “Philadelphia Freedom,” the song he wrote for his friend, tennis star Billie Jean King. At the time he wrote it, she was playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms of World Team Tennis. (In case you forgot, Pittsburgh’s team was called the Triangles.)

There was plenty of reminiscing to go along with the songs, as John set quite a few of them up with heartfelt remembrances. He introduced “Border Song” by talking about how much Aretha Frankin’s cover version meant to him and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin as they struggled in their early days.

“You can imagine how Bernie and I felt being two young kids from Britain and having Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, recording our song. We could not believe it,” John told the crowd.

He then proceeded to dedicate the song to her memory and perform the gospel tinged number with such a heartfelt, spiritual feeling there could be no question why Frankin covered it.

Then came a moment that really tugged at everyone’s heartstrings as John introduced “Tiny Dancer” by dedicating it to Jaime Guttenberg, a 14-year-old student who was one of the 17 students and teachers killed in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting .

John told the crowd he had been informed that Jaime loved to dance to the song.

“I had an email about it just before I went on,” John said. “I’m really upset to think that someone so beautiful and so young could have been dispensed in such an awful way. So, this is for Jaime and thank you for dancing to my song.”

John performed “Tiny Dancer” with so much emotional energy that by the time it was done, he slumped over the piano exhausted.

He had a somewhat awkward follow-up song, “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” one he admitted he and the band rarely played. No doubt many in the crowd had likely never heard it. There was plenty of power in John’s voice as he sang it and it included a brilliantly evocative guitar solo by Davey Johnstone.

The entire band performed brilliantly and tightly, including John’s longtime drummer Nigel Olsson, keyboardist Kim Bullard, percussionist and backing vocalist John Mahon, percussionist Ray Cooper and bass player and backing vocalist Matt Bissonette. John made sure to point out that Bissonette’s son Josh plays minor league baseball for the Pirates.

As the show went on, it seemed John knew it would be his last in Pittsburgh. He nearly wore himself out getting up from his piano between almost every song to acknowledge his cheering Yinzer fans.

As with the 2019 show, this concert came with elaborate video enhancement. Unfortunately, the videos were largely an unwelcome distraction from the live music on the stage.

One exception was “Rocket Man,” which launched with some trippy “2001”-style special effects and included views of Earth from space and animated views of Mars to coincide with the line “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids .” John and Johnstone stretched out the song’s climax in a way that made it seem as though neither wanted it to end. They combined to create some wonderful ethereal sounds before John went into Jerry Lee Lewis mode, banging out a booming boogie woogie finish.

John would bring the emotions down to earth with “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” calling it “one of my favorite songs Bernie and I ever wrote.”

He followed up with a version of “Levon” that made it feel like we were thrust into a revival meeting. By the time it was over, John was slumped over the piano again, but made it to his feet to drink in the rousing ovation.

Then things calmed way down with the obligatory “Candle in the Wind,” accompanied by a rotten video featuring a cheesy actress trying to play Marilyn Monroe. Surely, there’s enough film of the actual Marilyn available to make a decent video with. And why bother? Despite being written in 1973, most people think the song was penned for Princess Diana anyway. And, although John would never admit it, he really doesn’t seem to be into playing it anymore.

The unofficial second half of the show kicked off with one of his absolute best pieces, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” The opening spooky, stormy sound effects were loud enough to make people think the North Shore was under attack and were accompanied by a video that looked like it was lifted from a Frankenstein movie. It was stretched out to allow John time for a costume change.

With the lights down, the piano was moved (with the help of hydraulics) from the center to the right side of the stage. Elton then appeared on the piano in a baby blue suit with black velvet trim, a white ruffled shirt and a flock of diamonds crowded onto his cuffs.

As the piano glided back into position, he played those familiar, sweetly somber notes before picking up the tempo and turning the song into the exotic Latin-flavored dance number that morphs into the passion rocker “Love Lies Bleeding.”

John sounded like he did in his prime as he belted it out. He can’t sing the falsetto parts anymore, but he did hit some upper range notes along the way. Only this group of musicians could bring such an art behemoth to life so effectively.

All those in attendance can count themselves as fortunate to have witness it, likely for the last time.

Other highlights included “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” with scenes from the biopic “Rocketman” effectively accompanying it.

The encore included his collaboration with Dua Lipa (she appeared on video) on the single “Cold Heart,” which has sold over 2.5 million copies. John said he didn’t expect, at 75, he would have a No. 1 hit again.

Eventually, and reluctantly, John would have to acknowledge the old clock on the wall, which was moving toward 10:30 p.m., and wrap up the show. But he did not depart without a classy farewell address.

“Tonight is my 90th, and last, concert in Pennsylvania. Thank you for all the years of supporting me. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Thank you so much. I’m going to spend time with my children and my husband, and I’m going to have a great time. … I will never forget you.”

And we will never forget John after all the years of providing so much of the soundtrack to our lives.

He closed the show with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the song that made a lot of music fans realize he was special, in a Beatles kind of way.

After leaving the stage, a video popped up on the screen showing John walking through a door and away on, what else, a yellow brick road.

Friday night’s concert was John’s first solo outing at the home of the Pirates, although he did co-headline a concert with Billy Joel in August 1994 at Three Rivers Stadium.

But it remains to be seen if this really will be it for the legendary performer who has been saying goodbye from Steel City stages since 1984, when his first “farewell tour” played the Civic Arena.

The Igloo is long gone, but John is still standing.

His most recent goodbye (before Friday) was Nov. 13, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena. Whether intentional or not, he toyed with our emotions that night, saying “This is our final show in Pittsburgh. We won’t be coming back.”

Three years later, John was back and the crowd of about 40,000 who showed up on a lovely late summer night was glad he changed his mind.

Elton John’s setlist

1. Bennie and the Jets
2. Philadelphia Freedom
3. I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues
4. Border Song (dedicated to Aretha Franklin)
5. Tiny Dancer (dedicated to Jaime Guttenberg)
6. Have Mercy on the Criminal
7. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)
8. Take Me to the Pilot
9. Someone Saved My Life Tonight
10. Levon
11. Candle in the Wind
12. Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
13. Burn Down the Mission
14. Sad Songs (Say So Much)
15. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
16. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
17. The Bitch is Back
18. I’m Still Standing
19. Crocodile Rock
20. Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Encore

21. Cold Heart (with Dua Lipa)
22. Your Song
23. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

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