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Sunday, December 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Less-flashy Elton John still rocks the hits

Elton John gave a sold-out crowd of 10,000-plus at the Spokane Arena exactly what it craved Friday night: an unbroken string of hit after hit after hit, performed with professional polish and high energy.

It was a joyous and celebratory two hours and 50 minutes for John’s fans. If anyone was on the fence about Sir Elton – although I saw little evidence of that – this concert probably won them over for one simple reason. John has more quality hits in his enormous repertoire than almost any other contemporary artist you can name, with the exception of another sir (Sir Paul).

One early stretch of the show included the following songs performed in a row: “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Levon,” “Madman Across the Water,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel” and “Rocket Man.”

They were performed expertly by his band, which included several key members who have been with him since the late ’60s and early ’70s, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone. It was a rock band, not a show band: One guitarist, one bassist, one keyboard player, one drummer, one percussionist and four backup singers.

“The last time I was here I played a solo show,” said John, in one of his few moments of stage banter. “But this time, we’re going to rock out!”

And yes, they did. He might be known for ballads like “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (both of which he performed), but he and the band also blazed away on “The Bitch is Back” and the aforementioned “Saturday Night.”

He abandoned the giant hats and sunglasses many decades ago. He was dressed in striped black pants and a black tailcoat, which was embroidered with musical notes and a “Music is Magic” inscription. The effect was Nashville meets Hyde Park.

There was no flashy showmanship. His moves were restricted almost entirely to standing up between songs and pointing at various parts of the crowd (even behind the stage, which was also sold out). As for his general stage movement, I would sum it up as the opposite of spry.

But his fingers are as nimble as ever. The musical highlights of the show were his extended and exhilarating piano solos, performed as intros and interludes on several big mini-symphonic pieces, including the outstanding opening number, “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and an expanded “Rocket Man.”

He mixed classical-sounding themes with boogie-woogie, barrelhouse and jazz. In his intros, he dropped in tantalizing hints of familiar melody, which, in one memorable number, turned into “Take Me to the Pilot.”

The other happy surprise for the evening came after John asked the crowd’s indulgence while he played material from his newest CD, “The Union,” a collaboration with Leon Russell.

“If we didn’t have new songs to play, I’d be bored out of my life,” John said.

Russell didn’t show up (he has guested at other stops on this tour) but these new songs showed plenty of his influence, especially the bluesy “Hey Ahab” and wild rocker “Monkey Suit.” He also played a bittersweet and haunting Civil War ballad, with touching lyrics by Bernie Taupin, “Gone to Shiloh.”

And then it was back to the hits. Just when I was convinced that he must have finally run out of familiar tunes, he unwrapped “Candle in the Wind,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Crocodile Rock” and, for an emotional encore, “Your Song.”

It was a vivid reminder that Elton John was, in fact, the No. 1 Billboard chart artist of the entire 1970s (beating out Sir Paul).

At age 64, his voice may be a step or two lower, and he doesn’t leap onto his piano the way he once did. Yet those songs have aged exceedingly well.

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