Elton John pays tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, confesses love for Toronto in memorable farewell

If this was Elton John’s Toronto swan song in terms of concert appearances — he plans to retire

from touring live next year — then it was a doozy.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

If this was Sir Elton John‘s Toronto swansong in terms of concert appearances, then it was a doozy.

Performing in front of a crowd of 45,000 fans for the second night in a row – and for the sixth time as part of his seemingly never-ending Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour that has been interrupted by the pandemic and health issues – John, 75, had plenty to say about the city where he’s not only staged nearly 30 concerts and played for more than 750,000 people since the ’70s, but gave him true love and a husband in Torontonian David Furnish among other joys.

“I have a lot to thank you for,” the legendary piano-playing superstar declared just before launching into “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the 23rd song of a marathon two-and-a-half hour evening of predominantly chart-topping hits  – and his grand finale.

“My first Top 40 hit anywhere in the world was in Canada with ‘Border Song;’ I have a family in Canada. I’m so proud that my boys have Canadian passports. And a man who has made my life so incredible for the last seven or eight years professionally is my husband David who is here tonight, and I want to thank him so much.

“I’ve had the most incredible life. I’m stopping touring next year when I finish in Stockholm – and I honestly don’t need any more applause. I don’t need any more trips on a plane.  I want to be with my family and come to Toronto and not have to work – and see my family. I know a lot of you are disappointed, but for me, it’s a necessity because I do love my family and my boys so much and I need to be with them. I want to thank you, because I wouldn’t be here without you guys. You bought the records – the LPs, the cassette, the 8-tracks, the tickets to the shows, which are more important than anything – you’ve always supported me.  And I’ll take you with me in my heart and I’m not going to forget you, because I’m coming back. I just won’t be playing again. So, Canada, Ontario, Toronto, God Bless you forever, ok? Thank you!”

 And if he seemed a little emotional delivering that speech, he was further verklempt by the unexpected  passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the woman who knighted him, earlier that afternoon. One thought he might address the loss at the top of the show – or with an altered performance of “Candle in The Wind” with the lyrics offering a reference to Elizabeth’s death in the manner which he paid tribute to The Princess Of Wales in the 1997 version of the song. But those moment passed and he didn’t tackle the elephant in the room until over an hour into his show, when he introduced the band following the poignant ballad “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” – a hit and the album that it’s from, Blue Moves, both recorded in Toronto back in ’76.

“Of course, you know today, we have the saddest news about the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth,” John began. “She was an inspiring presence to be around and I’ve been around her and she was fantastic.  She led the country through some of  our greatest and darkest moments with grace, decency and genuine caring. 

 “I’m 75 and she’s been with me all my life and I feel very sad that she won’t be with me anymore, but I’m glad she’s at peace. I’m glad she’s at rest. And she deserves this: she’s worked bloody hard.  I send my love to the family, her loved ones. She will be missed, but her spirit lives on and we celebrate her life with music, ok?”

Aside from those deviations, the night was indeed a celebration of hits plied by  John and his six-piece band – including drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone, who have toured with him for over 50 years, and percussionist Ray Cooper, an Elton regular since 1974’s Caribou.

 It’s an enviable track record that has lasted five decades largely thanks to a prolific, award-winning partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin.

Strong, irresistible and memorable melodies combined with poetic flair that triggers and wring emotions is the John/Taupin recipe for success, and when you sell more than 300 million records, you know you’re doing something right.

Especially when your concert begins with a strident  “Bennie And the Jets,” and your history is flashing before your audience’s eyes via three gigantic video screen – that’s a good way to start the party early. And while you’ll get some carbon copies of the hits – “Philadelphia Freedom,” “The Bitch Is Back” and “I’m Still Standing” are cases in point – the really rewarding journey occurs when Elton and the band stretch out “Rocket Man” for an additional five or six minutes and turn it into a gravity-free theme of hopelessness and isolation. 

They added a rocked-up coda to “Levon” that saw Sir Elton display some of his rock ‘n roll ivory work and threw plenty of feverish gospel licks into “Burn Down The Mission.” A brilliantly dramatic “Have Mercy On The Criminal” benefited from Ray Cooper punching up some tubular bells for the occasion,  while a solo piano rendition of  “Border Song,” and related stories about the late Aretha Franklin covering the song were as soulful as they come.

“Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” was an 11-minute slice of heaven and John later made time to perform the PNAU remix of “Cold Heart,” featuring Dua Lipa as a duet partner, although it was a pre-recorded track and the Oscar winner simply sat at the piano and sang his part of the recording live.

Throughout the show, his voice was strong; his piano technique both versatile and skilful, and easily adaptable,  jumping from the sing-a-long “Crocodile Rock” to the beguiling “Tiny Dancer.”

Along with the joy that the concert brought was the inevitable sense of mortality: many of the projections featured cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe or Muhammad Ali who are no longer with us, but made an impact, their candles “burning out long before there legend ever did.”

As Elton John stated on Thursday night, he wants to live some of his life and he’s certainly earned that right through an amazing career that’s been pretty much non-stop since he released Empty Sky in ’68. 

While the thought that he will no longer perform concerts is a troubling one for those whose lives he’s offered an inextricable soundtrack, there’s some comfort to be found in the fact that he probably won’t be that much of a stranger in these parts.

As his brilliant music continues to live on, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you might catch Elton and his family over at The Senator grabbing the occasional burger. 

 For Elton, one chapter begins as another ends with an important lesson: live life while you’ve got one.