It all began Aug. 30, 1971, at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Across more than five decades, there were 10 concerts in Milwaukee, and 20 in Wisconsin.
There will never be another.
Elton John brought his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour to Fiserv Forum Saturday — two years later than planned because of COVID-19 — telling the sold-out crowd that it would be his last show in Wisconsin.
Granted, his last show in Wisconsin seemed to be his last show in Wisconsin, when the farewell tour came to Fiserv Forum in 2019.
But this, I truly believe, is it. The North American tour dates this year conclude with three dates in November at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, site of one of John’s most famous concerts (as depicted in the biopic “Rocketman”).
Saturday’s show was about 25 minutes shorter than his last Milwaukee appearance, with three fewer songs and much less banter. Unlike last time, John, who celebrated his 75th birthday last month, did start to show his age whenever he slowly walked, with his back arched, across the stage.
But when his soulful voice filled the Bucks arena, when his fingers danced across the piano keys, John once again was nothing short of spectacular, giving fans one last joyous night of memories befitting one of the grandest musical legacies of all time.
“Bennie and the Jets” was a hell of a warmup, with those familiar, spaced-out piano notes sending the crowd into a frenzy. But John wasn’t content to coast on nostalgic goodwill, slapping a little funk on his keys, complemented by a mean mug that resembled Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at his most unstoppable.
John was in such spirited form that he slammed the top of his piano down after rocking renditions of “Philadephia Freedom,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Levon” and “Burn Down the Mission” — his own take of the mic drop.
And he had enough stamina for two stunning 10-minute performances. The sprawling “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” was a fiery showcase for Nigel Olsson and Ray Cooper, two percussionists who have played with John since the early ’70s (they were supported Saturday by a third percussionist, John Mahon). And the classic “Rocket Man” was accompanied by a dreamy, instrumental finish, with John’s grandiose piano and echoing vocal coos dancing atop subtle, sublime slide-guitar flourishes from musical director Davey Johnstone — another indispensable member of John’s band since 1971.
Dazzling as the band was Saturday — they also included keyboardist Kim Bullard and bassist Matt Bissonette — there were a couple classic songs Saturday that John dominated, either solo or with minimal band support, giving more space to some of his lifelong lyricist Bernie Taupin’s words.
The first was “Border Song,” which John dedicated to the late Aretha Franklin, sharing some warm memories that spanned from first meeting her to watching her power through her final concert for his AIDS Foundation despite her poor health. Set to moving footage of people wearing white with images of activists projected on their bodies — including Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Princess Diana, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and many others — John and Taupin’s message is as urgent now as it was in 1970, as John Saturday sang “Holy Moses, let us live in peace/Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease.”
“Candle in the Wind” was another stunning solo John moment, his tragic tribute to the sad life of Norma Jean (aka Marilyn Monroe) under the harsh glare of the spotlight, his piano Saturday gliding across the stage as he performed. The heart-shattering illusion in the title remains one of pop music’s most powerful metaphors, and hearing John sing Saturday about Jean “never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in” was as devastating, and relatable, as it’s ever been.
And then, for the night’s penultimate performance, there was “Your Song.”
Among a legacy of classics that includes “Tiny Dancer,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and others — all of them wonderfully recreated in Milwaukee Saturday — “Your Song” may be the one that stands above all else. On Saturday, it certainly did, with John lending every word, every note, immense tenderness, giving greater weight to one of the sweetest lyrics ever written: “How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”
Walking out of Fiserv Forum after a spectacular two-hours-and-twenty-minutes of songs — watching fans singing, dancing, smiling, and in some cases, crying — it has never been more apparent how wonderful the world has been with Elton John in our lives.
- Five songs didn’t return from John’s 2019 show — “All the Girls Love Alice,” “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “Believe,” “Indian Sunset” and “Daniel.” It was a real shame about the latter two, which were unexpected highlights of his last Milwaukee appearance. But John and the band added “Have Mercy on the Criminal” to the set, which featured a grand, menacing guitar solo from Johnstone. And there was actually a new song — “Cold Heart” with Dua Lipa, from his 2021 album “The Lockdown Sessions.” With no live band, and with John just singing the song Saturday with Lipa on a video screen, “Heart” was the night’s weakest part by far, but John was clearly tickled to perform a new Top 10 hit so late in his career.
- A boisterous “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was accompanied by wild fights from decades of cinema Saturday, including a flash of the nun shaking a hysterical passenger from “Airplane!,” the comedy classic from Shorewood’s own Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker.
- Dignified and bedazzled as John was Saturday, it was slightly startling during these COVID times to see him spit across the stage between songs on a couple occasions. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do so the show can go on.
- Fans and Fiserv Forum went all out for John’s Milwaukee farewell, with concertgoers and arena staffers sporting fanciful shades, sequined jackets, feather boas, shiny top hats and so on, and collages of John’s albums set up all around the concourses for photo ops.
- And John, of course, went all out with his wardrobe, with four different looks Saturday. There were two sports jackets — one black adorned with sequins, the other pastel blue with a sequined cat head on the back and elaborate brooch on the left side of his chest, complemented by a pink bow tie. For those outfits, he wore sequined mirrored shades — the first tinted purple, the second pink — and at times, you could see his piano keys reflected in the lenses. And for the encore, he sported a silk robe with a flower pattern that he removed at the very end to reveal a track suit underneath with his name on the back — written in sequins, of course.
Elton John’s parting words to Wisconsin
“This is my 10th concert in Milwaukee. My first concert here was August the 30th, 1971, at the Milwaukee Auditorium, how about that? And tonight is my 20th concert in Wisconsin, and my last concert in Wisconsin. So I want to thank you. I’ve been coming since 1970 to America, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am and how unbelievably proud I am of being loved by this country and by all of you. It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been full of love and happiness, and you’ve shown me the most amazing loyalty and kindness, and I won’t forget that ever. I will take you with me. I will never forget the audiences I played to, and especially the people that made the effort to dress up here, and the people that come to a lot of shows. There’s some in the middle there that have been to a lot of shows, and there are some in the front here who have been to a lot of shows. The effort you made makes me so happy. All I can say is look after yourselves. I wish you love and happiness, prosperity and health. Be kind to each other and farewell.”
1. “Bennie and the Jets”
2. “Philadelphia Freedom”
3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”
4. “Border Song”
5. “Tiny Dancer”
6. “Have Mercy on the Criminal”
7. “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)”
8. “Take Me to the Pilot”
9. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
11. “Candle in the Wind”
12. “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”
13. “Burn Down the Mission”
14. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”
15. “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”
16. “The Bitch Is Back”
17. “I’m Still Standing”
18. “Crocodile Rock”
19. “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”
20. “Cold Heart”
21. “Your Song”
22. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”