With a grand piano center stage, a five-piece band of longtime collaborators behind him and a long black tuxedo coat bedazzled with flames and the words “Rocket Man” on the back, Elton John led a two-hour masterclass in pop song craft and musicianship following the Formula One Grand Prix on Sunday night. He played on the Circuit of the Americas’ “Super Stage” on the outer edge of the track between turns 11 and 12, and under thick grey cloud cover, but no rain, tens of thousands of fans massed on the raceway and a muddy hillside in the center of the course to take in his fantastic set.
The show was undeniably a hit parade — he kicked off with “Benny and the Jets” and segued into “Candle in the Wind” to get things started– but it was also much more. He played an extended jam of “Levon,” a 1971 deep cut, propelled by rollicking piano solos, complex arrangements and minimal technical elements. Snowflakes floated across a rear projection with all the flash of your laptop’s screensaver. Later, he logged a spirited version of the less-selected karaoke track “Philadelphia Freedom” with a waving flag and cartoonish starbursts at his back. It was a bit corny, but in an era of glitz, fireworks and pyrotechnics it was refreshing to watch a show constructed entirely around the strength of the songs.
And the songs were very strong.
The 68-year-old musician might have a bit more grit in the pipes than he did 20 years ago, but vocally he’s as powerful as ever. He soared through “Tiny Dancer” and invited the audience if they had “any lungs left after the race” to join him on the “very good chorus” of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Most of the crowd opted out, content to watch John spin through the song’s sweeping vocal loops.
He spent most of the set at the piano where his hands danced magically, but he rose occasionally between songs to gesture grandly and bow to the crowd. At one point he rescued a British flag, the Union Jack, that someone had lobbed at him, draping it on the set. He shouted out “someone who was my idol,” native Oklahoman Leon Russell, before playing “Hey Ahab” a song the two men collaborated on, put in a version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” with more lilt and swing than the original and played a ten minute piano solo on a darkened stage as a lead in to “Rocket Man.”
All in all, he put in a set that proved that his 45-year career has produced some of the greatest songs of all time and yes, he absolutely deserved to be knighted.
“I never thought I’d play a Grand Prix event,” he said, reflecting on the grand journey of his career, before graciously introducing his band including drummer Nigel Olsson who’s been with him since the beginning and guitarist, vocalist and musical director Davy Johnstone who started a few years in. He congratulated the drivers, especially fellow Brit Lewis Hamilton who took his third world championship at the race, and dedicated a searing version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” to all of them. It was the kind of moment that 20 years ago would have set the field ablaze with 20,000 reverently raised lighters.
From there, he charged hard into “Still Standing” in a climatic build that led to “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” the loudest sing along of the night before leaving the stage as the crowd cheered wildly. Some folks began to book toward the exit but the vast majority stayed put screaming for more. Sir Elton rewarded them, returning for a rocking version of “Crocodile Rock” the quirky 1972 song that was his first American chart topper. The audience shimmied, shook and sang their hearts out.
It was one of the first truly autumnal nights of the year, with a slight chill in the air and pervasive dampness following days of rain. But no one seemed to mind. As the crowd trudged along muddy pathways to exit the track the overall vibe was marked by lightness of spirit and warmth of heart.