Elton John is just getting started on saying goodbye. Tuesday night's first of two sold-out concerts at the Wells Fargo Center was just the second on the British piano player's Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, which kicked off Sunday night in Allentown and which is scheduled to spend the next three years traveling the globe.
Routing through Philadelphia at the start gave John, 71, an opportunity to begin his sentimental journey in a place that's resonated with meaning for him for nearly half a century.
"It's great to be here in a city where I have so many memories," he said at the start of the two-hour, 40-minute hit-packed, career-spanning show, which began just a few minutes after 8. "It's 48 years to the day since I first played Philadelphia at the Electric Factory."
As John pointed out last weekend on his Rocket Hour Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music, that initial date at the original factory at 22nd and Arch Streets marked the start of a special relationship between the British songwriter born Reginald Dwight and the City of Brotherly Love.
His 1975 hit "Philadelphia Freedom," which was delivered in a boisterous version early on Tuesday evening, was written not just as a gift for his friend Billie Jean King and her Philadelphia Freedoms World Team Tennis franchise, he explained, but also as a celebration of the sound of Philadelphia soul music he holds dear.
Much has changed for Sir Elton since he played that 1970 show on a baby grand piano that rested on plastic crates to keep from falling over. It was in support of his self-titled second album, whose plaintive hits "Your Song" and "Border Song," both of which he performed Tuesday night, made him a star.
But musically, much has stayed the same. At the Wells Fargo Center, he led a seven-man band whose core members have been with him for decades, including percussionist Ray Cooper, guitarist Davey Johnstone, and drummer Nigel Olsson, who was with him at the original factory date and who these days bears a resemblance to actor Christopher Plummer.
That sense of continuity coursed throughout the show, which got off to a bumpy start with a muddled, booming sound mix on the opening one-two punch of the thumping "Benny & the Jets" and raucous "All the Young Girls Love Alice." The latter is a deep cut from 1973's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that was an early signal that this goodbye tour was going to deliver cherished non-single tracks along with the hits.
The start was also made inauspicious by the sort of technical difficulties that aren't unexpected at the beginning of a tour. At first, John's vocals weren't properly in sync with the images on the big screen behind him and the two smaller ones on either side up in the rafters.
Those glitches were thankfully soon remedied, and John and his band, which also included Matt Bissonette, Kim Bullard on keyboards, and John Mahon on additional percussion and vocals, soon settled into a comfortable conversation with the singer's capacious catalog and the loyal audience he took pains to thank standing behind an "old fart" such as himself for so long.
John was discursive in his between-song patter, remembering writing the entirety of the music for the 1975 album Captain Fantastic & the Brown Dirt Cowboy on an ocean liner sailing from England to New York, and talking about how a desire to spend time with Zachary, 7, and Elijah, 5, his sons with his husband, David Furnish, convinced him it was time to pack it in.
Prefacing "Indian Sunset," he sang the praises of his longtime writing partner, Bernie Taupin, who was at Tuesday's show, explaining that the duo's working method has always been for Taupin to give him finished lyrics that he then composes music for. "We've never sat in a room together."
Flamboyance, of course, is John's figurative middle name — though the 'H' on his 'E.H.J.' monogrammed jumpsuits stands for Hercules. And costume-wise, the septuagenarian showman didn't disappoint glam rock enthusiasts, with a three-outfit night, all custom designed by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, that started out with a lavishly embroidered tailcoat ensemble. Goofy glasses were de rigeur, most endearingly so with the heart-shaped pair he wore during the encore, during which he sat on his piano bench in a pink bathrobe, like your lovable Uncle Elton.
For all John's sartorial flair, though, Tuesday's show was at heart a reminder that his success has always been rooted in rock-solid musicianship. If anything, it was the visual aspect that was a mild disappointment. Clips of happy young people dancing during "Philadelphia Freedom" were distracting. If you're not going to have actual dancers, just show us the band. And though it was entertaining to see images of Elton throughout his life as an enduring celebrity — from Soul Train to The Simpsons to Carpool Karaoke — a montage of movie fight scenes during "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" was just silly.
But the crucial question for an artist of John's vintage, of course, is: Can he still sing? The answer is yes. His voice has thickened over the years, but it's still an effective instrument, whether putting across soft-focus ballads like "Candle in the Wind" — which was accompanied by a David LaChappelle film that recreates Bert Stern's final Marilyn Monroe photo shoot using a lookalike model — or more roaring, robust workouts like "Levon," which brought the first set to a high-energy peak shortly before the brief intermission.
And John, who paid tribute to Aretha Franklin and other heroes with "Border Song," really relished playing his piano, bringing Fat Domino swagger to a bluesy "Sad Songs (Say So Much)," and leaning hard into his left hand on "Levon," or relishing shifting gears and tempos in a fiery and fun "Burn Down the Mission." After that track from 1970's Tumbleweed Connection, he popped up off his bench and shouted, "Come on!" back at the crowd, exulting in the rapport he still enjoys with his adoring audience, as he prepares for his final exit.