Elton John was visibly emotional when Saturday’s sold-out TD Garden crowd cheered his words of thanks for fans’ kindness over the years — since it was easy to notice his quivering lip on the virtual drive-in movie screen behind him. But at age 71, on the first leg of his three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, the English piano showman didn’t need oversized HD visuals any more than the flamboyant costumes or stage antics of his past to project heartfelt engagement with his music.
Dressed almost conservatively in a sequin-encrusted royal blue tuxedo and jewel-rimmed glasses, John merely needed his grand piano and resonant voice, which pressed into the emotive turns of “Tiny Dancer” and an extended “Rocket Man” where the seated singer’s ascent matched starbursts on the backdrop. “I think it’s gonna be a long, long time,” John intoned with ironic conviction. Even if his touring future looms short, with encore stops at TD Garden on Nov. 6 and next year on Nov. 15 (the latter going on public sale Oct. 19), he wasn’t taking any trip down memory lane for granted.
From dramatic pauses on the opening chords to “Bennie and the Jets,” John was primed to fill fans’ desires for the hits over more than two and a half hours. The 24-song set’s only fairly recent entry was “Believe,” a 1995 ode to love prefaced with his pride at raising $400 million through the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Yet he also dug into rarities. “Indian Sunset” became a dynamic duet with longtime percussionist Ray Cooper, an animated foil swinging mallets to his cymbals and drums. “Border Song” provided an ornamental showcase for John’s piano, framed by deep, heavy chords while pictures of his idols (including Aretha Franklin, who covered the song) flashed above. And it was great to hear the gospel-tinged “Burn Down the Mission,” where a screen effect set his piano ablaze.
John said the lyrics of 50-year writing partner Bernie Taupin inspired imagery “like a movie,” but Saturday’s backdrop footage sometimes distracted from the music, particularly the vignettes of California women during “Tiny Dancer” and colorful, cavorting dancers during “Philadelphia Freedom.” However, even an animated pinball ride couldn’t upstage the uplift of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and a drag queen pool fight in “The Bitch is Back” only lent more rocking fun.
Away from the screen, one could see joy in the faces of John’s six-piece band, led by guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, original members who fueled an unusually jammed out “Levon” and a magnificent mid-show layering of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” spookily cued with sounds of wind and thunder — and fog for John’s piano to glide cross-stage.
After his emotional exchange of thanks with his fans, John dedicated the next song to “the Patriots, who I love.” As the ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” rose to a mighty climax, it was clear that the beloved singer/pianist – like New England’s football team – wasn’t quite ready for his era of greatness to slide into the sunset.