FOXBOROUGH — Stadiums were made for two things — football and Elton John concerts.
John has one of the most compelling, compassionate voices in the history of pop music. On top of that, his piano playing is second to none. And those classic ‘70s songs he wrote with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin are spectacular.
Not only did Wednesday’s two-hour-and-twenty-five-minute sold-out concert at Gillette Stadium feature 19 incredible numbers from the ‘70s, three crowd-pleasers from the ‘80s and one mega-smash single from last year that celebrated the career of one of rock ‘n’ roll greatest showman. It also showcased the unbeatable collaborative partnership between John and Taupin.
Wednesday night marked John’s 243rd show on his current, globe-spanning “Farewell Yellow Brick Road,” which is being billed as John’s swansong from the stage. Thursday’s show (also at Gillette Stadium) will be his 244th. By the time John makes his last curtain call, the tour would have consisted of 300 performances worldwide.
As of Wednesday, Sir Elton John has played Foxborough six times, starting with a legendary July 4, 1976, concert at the old Schaefer Stadium. In addition, Elton has played 41 shows in Boston, the first being Oct. 29, 1970, at the Boston Tea Party, and 57 shows overall in Massachusetts.
In his first of two, back-to-back, sold-out “Farewell” concerts at Gillette Stadium, John’s voice sounded great. His piano playing was stellar. His band was top-notch. His song choices were timeless. If you have never seen Sir Elton John before, catching him on this tour is a serious must.
John opened the evening with the irresistible concert staple “Bennie and the Jets,” the first of five songs from his 1973 masterpiece, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and the first of 22 classic Elton John/Bernie Taupin collaborations performed Wednesday evening. Pounding the keys and pausing to see how long it would take the audience to recognize the number (it didn’t take very long), John would cheekily peek at the crowd from under his bulbous, rhinestone-encrusted, rose-colored glasses to see their cheering reaction.
Wearing a black tuxedo jacket embroidered with red, silver and blue sequins on the collar and the sleeves and his name Elton looking like a humongous red eye surrounded by a silver sun shooting out stars on back, Captain Fantastic actually looked relatively tame compared to his legendary, onstage getups of the past but his voice and his piano playing never sounded better.
John was also backed by a killer six-piece band that included guitarist and bandleader Davey Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and percussionist Ray Cooper, all of whom have been with Elton since the ‘70s, plus percussionist John Mahon, keyboardist Kim Bullard and bassist Matt Bissonette. Looking dapper, all wore black suits and ties, as well as dark sunglasses (except for the ones who needed prescription glasses).
Despite sounding like it was written to celebrate the American Bicentennial, John’s chart-topping, 1975 single “Philadelphia Freedom” was actually inspired by “The Battle of the Sexes” tennis star Billie Jean King in mind. Either way, it’s still a great song. At its conclusion, John smiled and waved at the crowd before slamming the lid to his black Yamaha baby grand piano in a gesture of triumph.
“Border Song,” John’s first charting U.S. single became a lovefest for the late, great Aretha Franklin. While the single only peaked at No. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 for John, Aretha’s superior cover reached 37. John affectionately told the audience how he and his writing partner Taupin were absolutely blown away when the Queen of Soul covered one of their songs and didn’t mind that she even did it better.
Prominently featured in “Almost Famous,” “Tiny Dancer” was a cathartic tour de force for John as he magically captured and celebrated the free-spiritedness of the song’s heroine (aka blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band) through his lively piano playing and the song’s rousing crescendo.
The concert shot into the stratosphere with a stellar version of “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” John’s far-out, musical parable that runs neck-and-neck with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as the best, modern-day pop songs dealing with the emotional dangers of space travel. Starting with a countdown on the launchpad, “Rocketman” erupted into an extended spacy jam with Elton’s haunting vocals and icy piano noodlings sounding like ghostly radio transmissions from a faraway galaxy. By the time the song reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, Sir Elton’s single-handedly restored all the subtly and grace of this classic tale of isolation and loneliness in outer space that William Shatner put to question with his cheesy cover.
Elton sang his heart out and pounded the keys in his piano like his life depended on it on “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a song inspired by John’s unsuccessful stab at suicide. Johnstone’s scorching guitar solo that kicked into a rocking jam showed that this song is not a eulogy but a celebration of life. And how boring life and pop music would have been if John had been successful and had took his.
Originally written in honor for Marilyn Monroe (before the blond bombshell was substituted for another dead 20th-century pop icon, Princess Diana), “Candle in the Wind” was restored to its original luster and burned brighter than ever before.
Midway in the show, John delivered the rousing showstopper, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” Moving into the stadium like a violent electrical storm, John had the audience (which included Gov. Charlie Baker and Patriots owner Bob Kraft) in the palm of his bloody hand. Showing off his virtuoso piano stylings and exquisite showmanship, this combination grandiose funeral march/arena rock anthem was made to be played in a packed stadium as it was Wednesday night.
John tickled the ivories while pulling at the heartstrings on the gut-wrenching piano ballad, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” I appreciate the sentiment Sir Elton but you saying farewell to the concert stage is much harder to hear than the word sorry to your diehard fans.
The versatile artist’s tender balladeer side was still in play for “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which John dedicated to Kraft, the Patriots’ owner. Although the song stalled at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 100 for John, 18 years later “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” became the chart-topper it deserved with the help of duet partner George Michael.
Going into the homestretch of the main set, Elton and his band delivered a series of irresistible arena rock anthems, starting with the tongue-in-cheek rabble-rouser, “The Bitch Is Back.”
Although not his best number of the evening, nothing came closer to capturing the theme of the evening than the spirited MTV anthem “I’m Still Standing.” Not only did John convincingly belt the song’s sentiment, it was fun to see the career-spanning clips in the background, including John’s appearances on “The Sonny & Cher Show,” “Soul Train,” “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “Will & Grace” and “Carpool Karaoke” from “The Late, Late Show with James Corden” flickering on the Jumbotron. Receiving arguably the largest applause of the night, John not only showed that he is still, in fact, standing but he towers above most, if not all, of his contemporaries.
John delivered the winning, one-two punch to close out the main set with his first U.S. No. 1 single, “Crocodile Rock,” and his answer to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Rocking with reckless abandoned, these two numbers alone were worth the price of admission. But combined with another 18 gems, not counting the three-song encore that was about to come, and you have a rock ‘n’ roll night to remember.
While most of the evening celebrated his stellar track record and incredible creative period of the ‘70s, John emerged in the 21st century for “Cold Heart (Pnau remix).” While the non-baby boomers in the crowd sang along with John during his virtual duet with Dua Lipa, virtually everyone in the crowd sang along to “Your Song,” Elton’s first international Top 10 chart single that came out 52 years earlier. And, like all good timeless classics, “Your Song” sounds like it hasn’t aged a day.
Wearing heart-shaped glasses and a purple robe that made him look like he was ready for bed (or late-night room service), John ended the evening with one of the true granddaddies of ‘70s rock ballads, his Top 10 smash “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”