Elton John at 3Arena, Dublin on 12 June 2019
In 2013, the musician Amanda Palmer (she of The Dresden Dolls) gave a TED talk inspired by her early career as a street performer – a living statue she called ‘The Eight-Foot Bride’. Here she admitted to initially questioning the value of her performance – was it really fair to expect strangers to trade their cash for a smile and a bit of eye contact? – until she realised the invisible exchange taking place, of mutual understanding and recognition – even of love.
Or, as Elton John puts it on his first of two nights in 3Arena; “It’s the greatest gift to be able to play to another human being and get a response.” This rhinestoned titan of the keys is nine months into a three-year farewell tour due to reach over half a million people and he seems personally invested in each and every one of them having an utterly fabulous time of it. Perched behind his baby grand like the gracious host at some wildly bacchanalian party, his three-hour powerhouse of a set is as much a celebration of his own career as a beautifully gift-wrapped thank you to all who have supported him over the past 50 years of touring – with a special shout-out to those who bought “those cassettes… those dreadful cassettes”.
Not that this is some grandiose occasion, mind. Elton’s never been one to take himself too seriously. Up behind the band, a big screen whips out visuals almost as good as the music itself. Sometimes these jarr slightly (Rocket Man is accompanied by what looks suspiciously like a Windows ’97 screensaver), but mostly they’re brilliant. During the yearningly beautiful I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, we’re treated to a nostalgia-heavy series of 1970s holiday snaps – picnics by the car, seagulls ‘n’ chips, everyone’s Grandma queuing wistfully in Homebase. Tiny Dancer gives a vignette of life’s turning points in L.A. ; Someone Saved My Life Tonight gets a Terry Gilliam/Hieronymous Bosch mashup of walking houses and horse-faced physicians, before an animated Elton John and Bernie Taupin wave out at us from the screen in 2D delight.
But enough of that – it’s the music we’re here for, and it doesn’t disappoint. Yes, Elton might no longer be able to reach the high notes in Tiny Dancer, but his voice is rounder, bluesier, like he’s been gargling with whisky and salt. This combined with the vibrato on Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word lends the song a raw depth missing from the recorded version, whilst Border Song grows closer to Aretha’s gospel-tinged cover.
He calls out the band as “the best that I’ve worked with”, and everything we hear backs that up entirely. There’s an extended piano/acoustic guitar outro to Rocket Man, the melody dancing nimbly between them and twinkling on happily through audience applause like a conversation built in octaves. Levon descends into a funked-up groove, knitting in the riffs of The Beatles’ Day Tripper and Saturday Night’s Alright, featuring a twin-necked Stratocaster because, frankly, why not. Meanwhile, on his own platform at the top of the stage, percussionist Ray Cooper is having about as much fun as humanly possible with a tambourine, whirling it around his wrists like a particularly flamboyant nymph, and gleefully hammering at the tubular bells on All The Girls Love Alice. Elton quips, “I believe in good. I believe in love” – but to be honest, he didn’t need to say it out loud. His songs have already done that for him.
In answer to that question you never thought you’d ask – no, it is not possible to look dignified while you and your piano are gently conveyer-belted from stage right to stage left and back again, even if you are wearing a floral sequined jacket, pink trousers and emerald specs. But no matter – all is forgotten as Elton reappears (this time in a crushed-velvet dressing gown) for an encore of Your Song, charming all the misty-eyed sixty-somethings of Dublin town – and, of course, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. As the final chord hangs in the air, Elton disappears into the on-screen sunset on a mechanical platform (there’s a worrying pause, which he styles out with good humour). Farewell, Elton. As thank yous go, this was a pretty damn good one.