Live Review: Sir Elton John pledges $1m to Australian bushfire relief fund at joyous Sydney concert

An emotional Sir Elton John addressed a packed out Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney last night, expressing his admiration for the firefighters battling Australia’s current bushfire crisis and pledging $1 million dollars to the relief fund.

It was but one of many moments of sincere and heartfelt speeches from the legendary artist during his first concert of 2020 – one of the last he’ll ever perform in Sydney. “I will never forget you; how could I?” He tells the crowd towards the end of the almost three hour set, “I’ve had enough ovations to last me a hundred thousand years”.

And it’s certainly easy to see why John has received so much praise for his live shows across the past five decades. The man is a consummate performer, knowing exactly when to dazzle, when to scale things back, and when to finally leave his piano and strut around the stage, eliciting the roar of the crowd he has become so accustomed to.

And what a roar it was.

Each and every song performed was a celebration of legacy, joined so enthusiastically by the capacity crowd who turned out early to make sure they caught every second of this outstanding show – John’s most appropriately lavish to date.

“Bennie and the Jets” was up first, immediately capturing the band’s flair for dramatic builds and spectacular releases. Those powerful, ground-shaking opening chords were stretched to build anticipation, each key press reverberating through the arena to signal something big was going down. B-B-B – Elton belted out the enduring hit with supreme confidence, no doubt largely credited to his six-piece band, which he later would call out as the best he’s ever played with. No one could argue against that by the end of the night.

Elton’s gritty, clearly aged voice has moved away from the gentle sweet soul heard on older records and taken on more theatrical, bluesy inflections when digging into the deeper registers. His cadence is also different as a result, which means a lot of the softer and more delicate ballads, like “Tiny Dancer”, didn’t sound as they would on record. And that’s completely fine – Elton and his gorgeous band do more than enough to ensure these live versions are satisfying, unpredictable and highly ornate.

John Jorgensen, scratching away at his twin-necked glitter guitar, proved his worth on a remarkable, intergalactic solo that would close out signature hit “Rocket Man”. Percussionist John Mahon gets over as the most valuable backing singer, adding dynamism to the lyrics, shadowing and amplifying Elton’s bigger notes. Seventy year old drummer Nigel Olsson adds a touch of violence each time he accompanies the hi-hats with a rumbling wave of bass from the kick.

Although it’s Ray Cooper, also on percussion, that is every bit as central to this set as John himself. That much is obvious from the extended, show-stealing epic of “Indian Sunset”, an exaggerated sonic tidal wave that’s every bit as theatrical as John and his long-time co-writer Bernie Taupin intended back in 1971. The song, tracking the story of a determined Native American warrior, is the first of several big moments where the absolute magic of musicianship builds these gargantuan solid walls of sound. Cooper’s maniac militant precision on the bongos is genuine edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

Elton John is at his strongest on these large-scale pieces. Aforementioned “Rocket Man” is turned into an unbelievable space odyssey. “Levon” is a scorching exercise in absolute maximalism. Even the gospel-leaning “Border Song”, preceded with a heartfelt tribute to Aretha Franklin (who memorably covered the 1970 single two years after it was released), felt bigger than the arena’s roof would have liked.

The big jam-heavy songs were balanced by quieter moments on songs like “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” and part-one closer “Candle in the Wind”, which was illustrated by a new David LaChapelle movie mirroring Marilyn Monroe’s final photo shoot with Bert Stern.

And that was only the first half

The second half of this show was even stronger, beginning in the most ridiculously over-the-top fashion as Elton’s grand piano slid across the stage with the speed of a juiced-up travelator. Golden lights broke across the screen as “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” was built from the ground-up. Visuals had Elton’s piano burst into flames for “Burn Down the Mission”. The tenderness of “I Want Love” was given context with a rousing speech about the mindless stigma against AIDS sufferers.

There’s no such thing as downtime at an Elton John show.

And if we became complacent with our expectations, John would go on to force us all onto our feet for an incredible five-song run of some of his most well known hits. George Michael duet “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” started things off, following an emotional thanks to the band and the fans, before rushing into the exciting “The Bitch is Back”. Although it was “I’m Still Standing” and “Crocodile Rock” that really got people dancing. “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was the band’s final attempt go hard or go home before a two-song encore would close out the night.

By the time sweet “Your Song” and psychedelic tour-namesake “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” swept through the crowd, it felt like Elton going above and beyond for his fans. Across two hours and forty-five minutes, this band had taken us not only on a journey, they rebuilt one of music’s most indelible careers and stuck true to the cardinal rule of showmanship.

Always leave them wanting more.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Set List

Bennie and the Jets
All the Girls Love Alice
I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues
Border Song
Tiny Dancer
Philadelphia Freedom
Indian Sunset
Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Time)
Take Me to the Pilot
Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Levon
Candle in the Wind

Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Burn Down the Mission
Daniel
I Want Love
Sad Songs (Say So Much)
Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me
The Bitch is Back
I’m Still Standing
Crocodile Rock
Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting

Encore:
Your Song
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Remaining Australian Tour Dates

Thursday, January 9th, 2020
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, NSW

Saturday, January 11th, 2020
Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW

Sunday, January 12th, 2020
Hope Estate, Hunter Valley, NSW

Tuesday, January 14th, 2020
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, NSW

Thursday, January 14th, 2020
Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane, QLD

Saturday, January 18th, 2020
A Day On The Green
Sirromet Wines, Mount Cotton, QLD

Sunday, January 19th, 2020
A Day On The Green
Sirromet Wines, Mount Cotton, QLD

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020
Carrington Park, Bathurst, NSW

Saturday, January 25th, 2020
Hanging Rock, Woodend, VIC

Sunday, January 26th, 2020
Hanging Rock, Woodend, VIC

Wednesday, January 29th, 2020
A Day On The Green
All Saints Estate, Rutherglen, VIC

Friday, January 31st, 2020
A Day On The Green
Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley, VIC

Saturday, February 1st, 2020
A Day On The Green
Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley, VIC

The writer attended this show at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena on 7th January 2019

Photo by Luke Sutton @lukeasutton

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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