If we could, as Cher invariably proves, turn back time, we could see Elton John in white overalls leaping in the air at the less-than-full old Guthrie Theater. Or Elton in a space suit, feathers and larger-than-life eyeglasses romping at the old St. Paul Civic Center on Halloween. Or stripped-down Elton, with contact lenses and no band, generating rock ’n’ roll excitement at Northrop auditorium.
On his three-year, 300-concert Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour that landed Thursday at sold-out Target Center, Sir Elton himself tried to turn back time to the 1970s, when those aforementioned concerts took place. It’s been 49 years and 30-some albums (and nine soundtrack records) since that Guthrie debut.
As if “The Lion King” and “That’s What Friends Are For” didn’t happen, the 71-year-old icon mostly revisited the ’70s on the first of two nights of his farewell to the Twin Cities.
He wore outfits that evoked the ’70s when he set new standards for rock ’n’ roll showmanship and excess. On Thursday, he arrived in a pink, black and sequined drum major’s get-up, changed to a floral sport coat with deep pink pants and finally a subdued track suit, all designed by Gucci.
Elton sounded “louder than the Concorde,” the title of his 1976 tour. Such volume and the overly bright sound seemed unnecessarily excessive.
And he played almost exclusively songs from the ’70s save for three numbers.
Guess he’s had enough with settling into the middle-aged middle-of-the-road mediocrity that marked his last few decades.
For the first hour on Thursday, it seemed as if Elton was trying too hard, shouting instead of singing, carrying on like a rocker in overdrive whether he was blazing through “All the Girls Love Alice” (one of only two deep tracks) or crooning a ballad like the bloated “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.”
The show turned around when he transformed from Elton the Rock Star to Elton the Musician. The first indication came on the piano passage near the end of “Rocket Man,” always a pivotal indication of his mood of the night. He started sounding like a music-box fueling a spinning dancer, got contemplative, speeded up in a jazz vein, segued into a deep, rich almost classical flourish and finally vamped on chords over and over, evoking the feeling of a rocket soaring into space.
On the ensuing “Take Me to the Pilot,” Elton not only explored a funky gospel groove on grand piano, but he offered emphatic vocals without shouting. Surprisingly, it was during “Levon” on which he fully became the piano player, going off on a spontaneous journey of various styles, including Professor Longhair boogie woogie that gave way to Fats Domino barrelhouse, syncopated funk and even a rare chance to hear him play piano rhythm while guitarist Davey Johnstone soloed. It was about as exciting as Elton John, the piano player, gets.
Of course, the 15,000 fans partied later to the full-tilt rockers, including “The Bitch Is Back,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “I’m Still Standing,” which has become a signature for the paunchy rock icon who waddles around the stage like the Penguin from “Batman.”
While he has seemed on autopilot at recent Twin Cities shows, including ones with Billy Joel, Sir Elton seemed more engaged on Thursday. After giving a shout-out to Aretha Franklin for recording his “Border Song” before he was famous, he also saluted Prince. “They have so much talent, it’s ridiculous,” he said of the two late music heroes.
Elton also acknowledged Tani and Bill Austin of Starkey Hearing in Eden Prairie for bringing free hearing aids to children in Third World countries. He dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to Tani, who was in the audience.
By the end of the two-hour-and-40-minute marathon, it was clear that the great Elton John burned out long ago, but his songs — and legend — never will.