About a third of the way through Elton John’s closing performance at Bonnaroo on Sunday night, The Spin was asked if EJ's set list was front-loaded with all of his best songs, or if he just had that many hits. The answer, of course, is that he’s just got that many hits. That’s the great thing about legacy acts: Their songs have permeated the lives of millions over decades, and audience members have the fun of not only sharing in a literally awesome communal experience wherein you become one of tens of thousands singing along to “Bennie and the Jets,” but also of making phenomenal memories. Like the bro we saw singing along to “Tiny Dancer” and holding back tears. Like the gay couple near us whose jaws dropped in druggy glee when Ben Folds was introduced to play along with “Grey Seal.” Like the guy on the giant screens who was filmed crowd-surfing at a damn Elton John concert. Even Elton himself said it was his “First ever festival in America.” Oh, Bonnaroo.
We had our own serendipitous memory-making moment as well, when we ended up standing next to a friend whom we hadn’t seen all weekend. It seemed like everyone stuck around for Elton: The crowd was very full but not at all cramped or surging; this was a group of people who wanted to hear perfect pop songs, and they were not disappointed. Clad in a jacket with “Rocket Man” spelled out and literally depicted in sequins, John took everyone through a litany of classics, starting with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” and then boom, “Bennie and the Jets,” boom, “Candle in the Wind,” boom, “Levon,” boom, “Tiny Dancer.”
When you’ve got a back catalog like that, the visual production can afford to be minimal, and oh, it was. The absurdly handsome cellists occasionally projected onto the screens were a treat, but the animated segments were cheesy to the point of being amateur, and the pendulum swung back into them being fascinating. There was the ‘80s Trapper Keeper vibe that was shown during “I’m Still Standing,” the American flag projected during “Philadelphia Freedom” that seemed suited for a used car salesman’s commercial, and the cartoon eras of John’s life shown throughout “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which featured an image of him with Leon Russell, whom we at first mistook for God. You know what was a great visual, though? When a bunch of people waited until “Rocket Man” to release their paper lanterns and balloons into the sky.
While John's speaking voice was a bit hoarse and he very occasionally leaned on his backing vocalists — among them John's career-long drummer Nigel Olsson, who hammed for the camera a time or two — for the lead melodies, he was largely in full, iconic voice, and the songs sounded as big as they ought to and always have. It was fun when John leapt onto the top of the piano for “The Bitch Is Back.” It was also fun when he occasionally puttered around stage, extolling the crowd to clap or get up their hands. It was fun when we got choked up to “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” And oh, the two-song encore! “What else is left?” we were asked again. It was a one-two punch of “Your Song” and “Crocodile Rock,” delivered to people who come to Manchester every year for nothing more than a good time, braving heat and traffic and bad vibes and mishaps, and it was just what they needed. Every word was sung back by everyone in the crowd. Elton John should play festivals more often.