Review: Elton John ignites sellout crowd

Elton John and his band made a triumphant return to Baton Roug following a nearly 21-year absence from a local stage.

John was in fighting form for his Friday night show at the River Center Arena. With decades of songs up his sparkling sleeves, he fired off hit after hit. The sold-out crowd loudly, constantly expressed its appreciation.

The show launched just after 8 p.m. with “The Bitch is Back.” After rocking through this especially jubilant sample of his and co-writer Bernie Taupin’s expert songcraft, John moved to “Bennie and the Jets,” another song that struck instant recognition amid the cheering crowd.

The glittering star of the show dressed the part. The shoulders, sleeves, trim and back of his blue coat sparkled. The large red-lettered word “Fantastic” was visible on the back of the coat, a reference to John’s 1975 album, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.” But this pop star once known for outlandish eyewear wore small, tinted glasses Friday that were quite conservative.

Feeling the love, John often rose from his spot at a black grand piano to acknowledge the audience. He pointed to places in the crowd and seemingly posed for the thousands of cellphone cameras pointed his way.

Following songs that qualified as especially anticipated favorites in a show full of favorites, such as “Rocket Man,” Sir Elton did victory walks around the stage. His closer proximity to the various sections of the audience inspired more, louder cheering.

Despite turning 66 on March 25, John’s obviously not ready for a rocking chair. More than once, he acknowledged his escalating years while adding that he loves his work more and more as the years pass.

The singer-pianist’s voice has grown deeper but, other than that and some repetitive piano licks, he hasn’t lost a step. For a man his age who sings as often and as forcefully as he does, his voice is in surprisingly good shape.

In another sign of his energy and endurance, John and his band —─including Nigel Olsson, drummer with the group since 1969; Davey Johnstone, guitarist and mandolinist with John since 1971; and singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Rose Stone from Sly and the Family Stone — performed for two-and-a-half hours, no intermission.

Knowing that fans want to hear the songs they love, the ensemble played faithful, full-length renditions of them.

“Levon,” from 1971’s “Madman Across the Water” album, was all that and more, supplemented by a gospel-style rave-up featuring a quintet of backup singers.

John has too many hits to fit in a single show, but the audience heard many of them nonetheless, including the beautiful early ’70s ballads “Tiny Dancer,” “Daniel” and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” a thumping “Crocodile Rock,” nearly chorale version of “Candle in the Wind” and uplifting “Sad Songs.”

And the lively “Hey Ahab,” from the 2010 album John made with his musical hero, Leon Russell, was more than worthy of its mid-show placement. As for another relatively obscure song, “Holiday Inn,” not so much.

After a late-show run of such crowd-pleasers as “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” the singers and musicians briefly left the stage. John quickly returned to end his River Center appearance with the same song with which he ended the sold-out concert he performed at the LSU Assembly Center in October 1992.

“I love playing for you guys,” he said. “This song is for each and every one of you.”

After playing his song for everyone, John turned to the crowd and said, “That’s ‘Your Song.’ ”