After delays, Elton John plays American Airlines Center on farewell tour

The most telling moment in Elton John’s concert Thursday at American Airlines Center came when he paused to explain how enraptured he was by American music as a child growing up in England.

He urged fans to imagine exactly how he felt in 1971, at the start of his career, when Aretha Franklin recorded his “Border Song (Holy Moses)” and turned its gospel vibe up to 11.

“I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” he told the near-capacity crowd.

It’s a perfectly fitting way to sum up his career. John is retiring from the road at the end of his marathon “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour. And when he’s gone, history will probably remember him as the bespectacled pop star in sequined outfits, pounding away at the grand piano like some rock ‘n’ roll Liberace.

But his true legacy is that of British artist who excelled at repackaging American music of every shape and style.

It wasn’t just the obvious gospel influence he showed Thursday in “Border Song,” “Levon” and “Burn Down the Mission.” You could hear it in the funked-up New Orleans jazz piano that ended “Bennie and the Jets” and resurfaced in a half-dozen other tunes.

You heard it in the frantic Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano solo that kicked off “Take Me to the Pilot.” Or the gorgeous Philly soul of “Philadelphia Freedom.” Or the 1950s Brill Building songcraft or “Crocodile Rock.”

And of course, you heard it the Leon Russell-inspired Oklahoma drawl he sang with now and again, though not nearly as often as he used that vocal trick in the ’70s.

All told, John cranked out 20 greatest hits over a feverish 2-hour, 15-minute show. There was almost no fat. No “Island Girl” or “Nikita” or other oldies that haven’t aged well.

He retooled the set list from earlier in the tour, cutting lesser-known oldies like “Indian Sunset” and “All the Young Girls Love Alice,” as well as one bona fide classic: “Daniel,” his haunting 1973 ballad about brotherly love and PTSD.

In their place, he’s added a different track from ’73, the majestic “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” as well as “Cold Heart,” a curious dance-club mash-up of older song fragments that recently rode the charts with help from singer Dua Lipa.

The tune seemed out of place, especially with its reliance on pre-recorded music. Yet there was no way Elton was going to skip it.

“I won’t lie to you … It’s great to have a hit when you’re 74,” he said with a sly smile.

With the exception of “Cold Heart,” John’s trusty six-man band played a huge role in the show, especially longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone, whose slide playing in “Tiny Dancer” spun the song in a sublime new direction.

Johnstone wasn’t the only veteran from the ’70s. Drummer Nigel Olsson held down the rock-steady beat while percussionist Ray Cooper attacked the kettle drums with theatrical flair.

John was in his usual high spirits, his grin sparkling as brightly as his sequins while he mugged, waved and bowed at the end of each song. At one point, he doubled over in mock exhaustion for comic effect. At other times, he slammed the top of his Yamaha grand piano to punctuate a song.

When he did walk across the stage, he limped slightly, the result of a hip injury suffered during a fall last year that caused the tour to be postponed.

Then again, postponements are as much a part of this tour as “Rocket Man” or the show-closing rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” After suspending the tour for 10 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, John resumed it in January, then tested positive for a mild case of the coronavirus, which delayed his two Dallas shows yet again, to Thursday and Friday night. (He’ll also play Sept. 30 at Globe Life Field.)

“I finally made it!” he told the near-capacity crowd. “I’m COVID-free.”

Perhaps. But vocally, he faced rough sledding throughout the show. His voice sounded perfectly on some tunes, like the encore of “Your Song.” But he struggled in others, especially “Burn Down the Mission,” as his deepened-with-age baritone sounded unusually gnarled, nasal and slightly flat.

Chalk it up to the lingering effects of COVID-19, the rigors of touring or simply to growing old. But at age 74, Sir Elton Hercules John is no longer the superhuman singer and performer he once was.

Unlike other singers who keep going way past their prime, perhaps he’s picked the right time to finally call it quits.

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