Elton John, master of old and new, at Wells Fargo

Elton John performing at Philips Arena on Friday, Nov 16, 2013, in Atlanta. (Photo by Robb D. Cohen/Invision/AP)
Elton John performing at Philips Arena on Friday, Nov 16, 2013, in Atlanta. (Photo by Robb D. Cohen/Invision/AP) (Robb Cohen/Invision/AP)
Posted: December 01, 2013

Elton John has been a lot of things to a lot of people: a Brit with a Southern Gothic lean, a garishly appointed Liberace-like entertainer, a Disney shill, one of pop's first "out" personalities.

One thing younger Philadelphians might not know is that John has several time-honored connections to the area, something he acknowledged during Wednesday's show at Wells Fargo Center.

Wearing a sparkly blue tux, sitting at his piano beneath a glittering chandelier, John mentioned his multitude of Philly gigs since 1970 and longtime relationships with local companies (like Clair Bros., the audio outfitters) responsible for his stage design and megawatt sound systems.

Of course, he sang his disco-era hit, "Philadelphia Freedom," with brio. "This is your song," he told the audience.

John the vocalist was in fine shape. His voice (rich, with remarkably few rough edges) nestled soulfully against two banks of backing vocalists: his legendary bandmates, drummer Nigel Olsson and guitarist Davey Johnstone; and a crew of singers led by Tata Vega and Rosie Stone.

With a full-bodied voice, John tackled the medley of "Funeral for a Friend," with its electro-keyboard setting reminiscent of Wendy Carlos, and that tune's glam-rock counterpart, "Love Lies Bleeding."

And he turned "Rocket Man" into a blues lounge ballad with relaxed, elongated notes.

John the pianist was magical, filling runs with happily hammy lyrical flourishes, inspired in equal measure by Professor Longhair, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Peter Allen. No matter how short or long the passage, the pianist seldom played it straight, as witnessed during his quick, strident trills throughout "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." He played his piano like a harpsichord during the elegant minuet "The One." Few pianists could put the hammer down on a first note, as he did during "Bennie and the Jets," with such epic resonance.

John also performed more recent tracks, such as the hard, swampy "Hey Ahab" (from his 2010 album with Leon Russell, The Union), and the handsomely overblown "Home Again" and the world-weary "Oceans Away" (from this year's The Diving Board).

Yes, his hits kept coming, but, unlike with most classic rockers, you wanted to hear more (not less) of John's recent work, his best in some time.

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