Review: Elton John bids a fond farewell at Little Caesars Arena

The singer's Friday concert, the first night of a double dip at Little Caesars, included a tribute to Aretha Franklin

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Elton John's Detroit goodbye began Friday night at a sold-out Little Caesars Arena with a jubilant 24-song, two-hour and 40 minute celebration of the rock icon's legendary career.

John is back at Little Caesars on Saturday night, and even money is on him returning to the Motor City sometime before his gargantuan Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour wraps in 2021. 

But with an adieu this sweet, no one will mind if it's stretched a bit further.  

The 71-year-old was in fine form on Friday, rollicking through his upbeat show which included massive hits, deep cuts and extended, stretched-out jams. 

Elton John performs at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan on October 12, 2018.

The biggies were all there — "Candle in the Wind," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," "Rocket Man," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me," pow pow pow — but so were several surprises.

"Indian Sunset," from "Madman Across the Water," was introduced as a "two and a half hour movie" put into song, and showcased the dramatic percussion work of Ray Cooper, who plays the tambourine like he's charming a snake. And "All the Girls Love Alice," which is tucked away on the back half of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," came early in the set, just after opener "Bennie and the Jets." 

John wasn't far into the evening when he recalled his first visit to Detroit, when he played the now defunct Eastown Theatre, and he shared warm memories of Aretha Franklin while introducing "Border Song," which Franklin memorably covered.

John said he and his writing partner Bernie Taupin were "gobsmacked" when he heard the news Franklin had covered his tune. 

"We were delighted at the fact that the woman we loved so much then, and grew to love even more afterward, would actually record one of our songs," John said. "God I loved her so much. We shared the same birthday. I used to call her on her birthday sometimes and wish her a happy birthday and to say thank you, not just for being Aretha, but for every piece of music that she made that inspired me."

John wore several flashy outfits throughout the evening, including a navy suit with gold trim (and tails, naturally) and oversize green glasses, and a pink robe adorned with two glittery cats on the back with a pair of red heart-shaped spectacles. 

He was always animated, hopping up off his piano bench after just about every song, hyping up both the crowd and himself. "Come on!" he shouted, often slamming the top of his piano for emphasis, the way a basketball player motions to the crowd after sinking a key shot. 

He had the music to match his mood, with the extended outros on "Rocket Man" and "Levon" leaving what felt like smoke coming off the stage. 

There was literal smoke on the stage during the proggy "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," which opened the second half of the show, and "Burn Down the Mission" saw John playing a piano that burst into flames on the stage's robust video screen.

That video screen featured mini-movies shot by famed photographer David LaChapelle — "Tiny Dancer" told a story of several women in Los Angeles, "Daniel" a tale of a military man sifting through his memories — as well as archival footage of John through the years. "I'm Still Standing" showed scenes from his concert performances as well as his appearances on "Will & Grace," "The Simpsons," "South Park" and "The Muppets," and "Crocodile Rock" showed John's biggest fans vamping to the song.   

That video screen was surrounded by a frame featuring storied images from John's career — "The Lion King"; the cover of "The Mission," his joint album with Leon Russell; the Soul Train logo — which looked like they had been engraved into stone.

The finale of the show saw him disappearing into the video wall, following a closing rendition of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." 

This is a farewell, of course, and he thanked his fans — largely 50 and older, many of whom came in feather boas and oversized glasses of their own — for five decades of support. 

"I never expected this would ever happen," John said, of his "incredibly remarkable" career. "I'm deeply grateful, and I will miss you so much. But I have other fish to fry now." 

It's a long goodbye, yes, but a goodbye nonetheless, and there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when we'll no longer be able to see Elton John live.

We hate to see him go, but we love to watch him leave.