Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: by Rory Barnes
Even from 100 yards away, you could see Elton John’s spectacles sparkling at last night’s triumphant BST Hyde Park gig in London. It was a pinch yourself, ‘pop culture bucket list’ moment, like seeing Blondie’s Debbie Harry work a wind machine, as she did at the O2 in April, or hearing Britney introduce herself with the b-word.
But with a capacity of 65,000+, I imagine it was hard to catch a glimpse of Elts from the very back of the park, even in his array of eye-catching outfits - my favourite being a luxurious-looking blazer; a patchwork of soft browns, pinks, greys, blues, and sequins. His propulsive, bombastic voice, on the other hand, filled not only the park but all of Westminster.
It can be saddening, hearing the weakened voices and stages presences of jukebox veterans doing it by the numbers. Elton’s in a league of his own, however: note-perfect and sounding exactly as he does on record, aside from a heft of thrilling vocal inflections that 2000-era Toni Braxton would be proud of. (And that, to my great amusement, occasionally left audiences thrown and singing out of time.)
He’s also an inexhaustible, generous performer who never seems to stop touring while offering excellent value for money. Last night, he sang his heart out for around two and a half hours, opening with 'Bennie and the Jets', his lightning-fast piano hands beckoning festivalgoers from across the site who never conceived he’d start so early. I saw people running from the toilet or the bar, cursing themselves for not finding a good spot in the crowd sooner. The depth of affection for him was moving to behold: few other LGBTQ artists, to my mind, have cis-hets quite as spellbound, and in such astronomical numbers.
A mammoth 22 hits went by in a flash, and I was never once bored - although I was occasionally bemused by the setlist. ‘Candle in the Wind’ came at the midway point, when it was still daylight, which made no sense to me. I ached for the transcendence of his tracks from for The Lion King (in my opinion, his best work) but they never materialised. (Looking at old setlists, this seems to be the norm). And yet I encountered several songs - presumably lesser hits - I didn’t know.
I’m admittedly not an expert on the star’s discography, and was, for instance, relieved to be spared renditions of the irritatingly chipper ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ and ‘Are You Ready for Love?’ (Although, both were blasting through the speakers when the gig was over.) But where on Earth was the nakedly emotional ‘Sacrifice’? Its transmogrified cousin, the tinny, calculated ‘Cold Heart (Pnau remix)’, Elton’s worldwide smash with Dua Lipa, may have kicked off the encore - no, she wasn’t there - but that’s hardly a substitute. In fact, it's literally a sacrifice.
There was, however, no messing with stone cold classics like ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Rocketman’, ‘I’m Still Standing’ and ‘Your Song’. Such uplifting songs, performed so well, paired with Elton’s jovial relationship with concertgoers, who he regaled with stories about Aretha Franklin and George Michael, created a joyous, magical atmosphere.
There were other treats in store: compelling computer graphics that turned the star's legacy into visual art; a shout out to his and David Furnish’s beaming kids (and their friends!). I was even here for the geeky stats: this was Elton’s 130th London gig, if I heard correctly, and fourth in Hyde Park. To even offer up such information at the gig’s climax, rather than just the stereotypical ‘I love you, I love you, thanks for coming!’ was a tangible touch of class and respect for the audience. I didn’t hear ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, but I definitely felt it.