It’s hard to fully believe that when Elton John took the sold-out TD Garden stage Friday night, it was the last time he’d ever play Boston. After all, his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour — intended to be his last — is not only set to run at least one more year but has already hit the Garden twice before. But if the third time is indeed the charm, woe betide those who got caught in the snarl picking up tickets or at the backed-up entrances; that was last call for “Bennie and the Jets,” sorry for your loss.
Fittingly enough, the focus was on hits and plenty of ’em. A small handful of album cuts made it onto the setlist — including the soaring Beatlesque optimism of “I Want Love” and the multi-staged “Indian Sunset,” symphonic with just piano and Ray Cooper’s percussion — but even some of those were longtime concert staples like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”
Also fittingly, plenty of John’s songs had a finality to them, explicitly or implicitly. There was “Funeral,” “Indian Sunset,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but even “I’m Still Standing” and a propulsive and fiery “The Bitch Is Back” both contained kernels of bittersweet irony from someone hanging up his piano stool. And in discussing his writing process with lyricist/soulmate Bernie Taupin and tipping his hat to guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson — still playing the classics that they, along with late bassist Dee Murray, recorded with John all those decades ago — he seemed to be putting a bow on his (and their) long, extraordinary career.
Some things had changed: Costume changes were limited to a few sparkly jackets, and John’s piano occasionally drifting across the stage and filmed backdrops like a drag-queen pool throwdown stood in for full-body showmanship. But what was left was more than enough. The big-screen closeups offered a reminder that as with Fats Domino, John’s fingers, seemingly stubby for a piano player, nonetheless danced on the keys. And like Domino’s music, a New Orleans undercurrent ran through a lot of songs, from the muscular gospel-funk of “Pilot” and piano pounding of “Burn Down the Mission” to “Crocodile Rock,” which set a beach party atop a shifting-sands bayou rhythm.
Throughout, John and his band were a well-oiled machine. “Tiny Dancer” and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” expertly held their payoffs at arm’s length for most of their duration, “Rocket Man” was appropriately weightless, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was raucous and wild. As he ended with the dreamy, detached “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” a montage of John’s career unspooled chronologically behind him, finally landing on his face, singing to the audience right then and there. It was a grand, lovely farewell, if it was indeed farewell.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc
At TD Garden, Friday