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Elton John has embarked on a farewell world tour that ends in 2021 and will call in on Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Elton John’s farewell tour ends in 2021 and his show is low-key well-rehearsed and full of humour

  • Elton John played two dozen of his hits and was surprisingly restrained
  • The three-year world tour will include Hong Kong and other Asian cities

You have to love Elton John’s idea of a sizzle reel. As shown on an enormous screen last week in Los Angeles, where the veteran pop star was appearing as part of the world tour he says will be his last, the carefully edited video package synchronised John’s performance of his song I’m Still Standing to highlights from his half-century career.

We saw him accepting an Academy Award. We saw him onstage in his famously bedazzled Dodgers uniform. And we saw that time a few years ago when he tried to sit down at a tennis match – then immediately tumbled out of his chair.

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“Looking like a true survivor,” he sang, before adding, “Feeling like a little kid.”

John’s inclusion of the embarrassing moment was in keeping with the sense of humour that’s always distinguished his work.

It was especially welcome, though, at the LA Staples Centre show, which might have been a far more pompous affair. John’s tour – called the Farewell Yellow Brick Road after the smash 1973 album with which it almost shares a title – launched last year and is scheduled to end in 2021, including dates in Hong Kong and other cities in Asia.

The marketing material for the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour refers to John’s having “redefined the cultural landscape” and his readiness to “fully embrace the next important chapter of [his] life”. But if you walked in fearing a self-congratulating slog, that’s not what John had in mind.

Over a breezy 2½ hours, the 71-year-old zipped through two dozen hits (and a couple of oddities); told some funny, well-rehearsed stories about his ambitions and achievements; and changed costumes only frequently enough to suggest he won’t be spending his retirement wearing sweatpants.

For all the build-up, in other words, the gig turned out to be a relatively low-key delight.

Singer Elton John at Gotham Hall on January 24, 2018. Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Oh, John got some bragging in, of course: the concert opened with Bennie and the Jets, or rather with that song’s first chord, which he let hang in the air for a moment, confident the capacity crowd knew what was coming.

And before he played Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me he took some time to point out that no less an admirer than Lady Gaga was in the house – and on the same day she was nominated for her own Oscars.

But mostly he let his music speak for itself. Backed by players who’ve been with him for decades – including guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson – John moved with seeming effortlessness from the rootsy Tiny Dancer to the disco-flecked Philadelphia Freedom to Levon, which made you wonder once again how this brainy English guy internalised the language of American soul music.

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Introducing Border Song, he recalled being told ages ago that Aretha Franklin planned to cover the tune, which he wrote, like nearly all his songs, with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

“You could imagine how we reacted – we were so dumbfounded,” he said. Yet his performance here, with its gloriously churchy piano, made clear why Franklin was drawn to Border Song; it showed off John’s deep understanding of genre even as his singing, lower and bluesier than in the past, made the music feel utterly personal.

Though John has recorded frequently in recent years, he’s keeping these shows focused on the old stuff. (His set list is so constant night to night that he made it into a playlist on Spotify.)

The newest song he did at the LA gig was Believe,” from 1995, which he preceded with some talk about the “extraordinary healing power of love and compassion.”

“For people who treat people with disdain because of their colour, their sexuality, I have nothing but contempt,” he said – a contradiction, perhaps, but not one that appeared to trouble Lady Gaga, who stood from her highly visible seat near the stage to applaud John’s comments.

After Believe, John strung together some of his most well-known songs – The Bitch Is Back, Crocodile Rock, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting – in a wham-bam sequence that further showed both the range and the economy of his music.

The only downside of John’s reluctance to get more grandiose was that the concert didn’t exactly define what farewell means to him. Perhaps nobody wanted him to weep during Candle in the Wind or to showcase every one of his albums in reverse chronological order, beginning with 2016’s completely forgettable Wonderful Crazy Night.

But leaving it all behind must be doing a number on him, right?

Maybe it just hasn’t hit him yet. As he inevitably closed the show with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John climbed onto a mechanical platform that carried him through an opening in the video screen at the rear of the stage – going off into the digital sunset.

Then, once he was out of view, the screen flickered back to life with the trailer for an upcoming Elton John biopic called – what else? – Rocketman. He’ll sell tomorrow after he’s finished selling today.

LA Times

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: when g ood bye seems to be the hard est w ord