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Review: Elton John heartfelt and flashy at his San Diego farewell tour concert

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Elton John performs during his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” retirement tour concert at Pechanga Arena San Diego on Tuesday.

Elton John had only performed the first two songs of his Tuesday night “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” retirement tour concert in San Diego when he turned to the audience and apologized.

“It was very hard for me to put a set list of songs together,” he told the sold-out audience of 11,000 at Pechanga Arena San Diego, the venue known until late last year as Valley View Casino Center.

His dilemma, John explained, was that “we would be here for loads of time” if he performed all his favorite songs — or even if he only played his many, many hits. Nevertheless, he promised, “we’ll still be here for loads of time.”

True to his word, he delivered 23 songs and two triumphant encores — “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — over the course of an expertly calibrated concert that lasted two hours and 41 minutes. (The full set list appears below.)

John will turn 72 on March 25. Many musicians a third his age would be hard-pressed to perform for nearly three hours, let alone match the consistent skill, polish, craft and showmanship he brought to the stage.

True, John — whose farewell tour started last September is scheduled to continue through the end of 2020 — no longer kicks his legs out behind him while playing hard-pounding keyboard arpeggios. Nor did he leap on top of his grand piano during his concert here, which opened with the powerful, one-two punch of “Bennie and The Jets” and “All The Young Girls Love Alice.”

But this enduring pop-rock legend sounded very much like an artist who wanted to make a point and burnish his reputation, not a tired music tycoon coasting on auto-pilot for one-last major cash-grab.

The most vivid example of John’s vigor and commitment came with his 11th selection, “Levon.”

When the song debuted on his fourth album, 1971’s acclaimed “Madman Across the Water,” it was a pleasant, heavily orchestrated ballad that built up some steam over the course of its five minutes and 22 seconds, ending just as his piano playing kicked in.

On Tuesday — in the same San Diego arena he first performed at back in 1972 — John and his well-drilled six-man band stretched “Levon” out to an exhilarating 13 minutes. At least half that time showcased an ebullient piano solo by John, who clearly relished every moment.

He executed rollicking blues lines and rippling boogie-woogie cadenzas with equal aplomb, then segued into a sultry Latin-soul boogaloo vamp before rocking out with so much vitality and youthful abandon he sounded like he was 21, not 71.

The loudly enthusiastic audience rose to its feet shortly after John’s solo on “Levon” began. When the song concluded, he responded to the sustained ovation by flexing his muscles, then held both his arms out in front of him, à la Superman. (For the record, in 1972 — when his stardom was surging ever higher — he legally changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John.)

“Levon” was preceded by such John staples as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Rocket Man,” the gospel-tinged “Take Me to the Pilot” and the disco-fueled “Philadelphia Freedom.” Later on, he performed “The Bitch is Back” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” with infectious verve.

He also included the 1971 deep album cut “Indian Sunset,” a touching lament to the many American Indians slaughtered in the 1800s. Nearly eight minutes in length, it was performed as a duet with John’s longtime percussionist, Ray Cooper, and the absence of the rest of John’s band nicely spotlighted his deeply expressive singing and supple keyboard work.

For at least the first half of the concert, the sound was muddled more often than not. The band, ably led by guitarist and musical director Davey Johnstone, featured keyboardist Kim Bullard, bassist Matt Bissonette and three percussionists— Cooper, John Mahon and Nigel Olsson, who has anchored John’s band for the past half century.

The presence of three drummers brought to mind the current edition of King Crimson, the pioneering progressive-rock band that John auditioned for as lead singer in 1969. That was the same year he auditioned, also unsuccessfully, to be the lead singer in Gentle Giant, an equally innovative (but far more obscure) English progressive-rock band,

Olsson and Bissonette — whose brother is the second drummer in Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band — made for a rock-solid yet sensitive rhythm section. Cooper has the ability to play even the most elemental tambourine parts with great flair, while Johnstone is equally adept with power chords, biting leads and intricate acoustic guitar parts.

An enormous video screen behind the stage, and two smaller ones to either side, provided welcome close-ups of the action on stage, including lots of close-ups of John’s nimble piano playing. But the pre-filmed video for “Tiny Dancer” — which featured, among others, a vape-smoking elderly woman, a young Latina with a stars-and-stripes decorated urn and a skateboarding teenage girl who smashes a car’s windshield — was simply baffling.

The concert was John’s first area appearance since his 2010 show at the venue then known as Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre (now North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre). Happily, he was not suffering from a stomach virus Tuesday, in contrast with his concert here nine years ago.

While John made his music the focus Tuesday, he reflected aloud several times on his half-century-long career and his similarly long partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

“In this business, 50 years is a hell of a long time,” John told the audience. “Relationships usually don’t last this long, because this business chews people up and spits them out. But not us.”

Later, in between “Burn Down the Mission” and “Believe,” John recounted his 12 years of addiction, and how — after getting sober in 1990 — he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation to battle HIV. It has raised $400 million to date.

“Fifty years ago, if you would have said I’d be in San Diego (now), talking about 50 years ago, I would have said it’s (impossible),” noted John, who later performed “I’m Still Standing” as his aptly titled 19th selection. “The greatest thing a musician can do is play for people and get a reaction. And, boy, have you given me a reaction.”

His family is the reason John decided to embark on his farewell tour. He has two grade-school age sons, Zachary and Elijah, with his husband, David Furnish.

“If I didn’t have a family, I wouldn’t be doing this (farewell) tour,” John told his audience Tuesday. “It’s time for me to spend time with my boys.”

Of course, time is relative, since his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour isn’t scheduled to conclude until December of next year in London.

Moreover, John has said nothing about retiring from writing songs or recording them, just his desire to step back from the rigors of the road. As his marathon San Diego concert made clear, he wants to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

Elton John “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” San Diego set list

1. “Bennie and the Jets”

2. “All the Girls Love Alice”

3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”

4. “Border Song”

5. “Tiny Dancer”

6. “Philadelphia Freedom”

7. “Indian Sunset”

8. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”

9. “Take Me to the Pilot”

10. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”

11. “Levon”

12. “Candle in the Wind”

13. “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”

14. “Burn Down the Mission”

15. “Believe”

16. “Daniel”

17. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”

18. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”

19. “The Bitch is Back”

20. “I’m Still Standing”

21. “Crocodile Rock”

22. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”

Encores:

1. “Your Song”

2.” Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

Twitter @georgevarga

george.varga@sduniontribune.com