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26 June 2023

Elton John at Glastonbury: the sun king’s dazzling swansong

Schmaltzy tributes and wardrobe malfunctions could not impede the festival headliner’s euphoric lap of honour.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When Elton John stepped out at Glastonbury he appeared to hundreds of thousands in the expansive crowd as distant and as blinding as the sun. Dressed in a maximum-visibility monochrome suit (in the style of the Queen, or Hillary Clinton) of baggy gold blazer, gold trousers and gold trainers, he shone in the evening light. You had to squint to bring him into focus. A large and dense mass of people had been pulled into his orbit over the preceding hour, eager to catch a glimpse of a star’s last burst of heat and light.

He opened with fireworks, and a string of slick, swaggering tracks from the early Seventies: “Pinball Wizard”, “The Bitch Is Back” (pointing his finger at the crowd as he sang “I’m better than you”) and the mighty, electric “Bennie and the Jets”, one of few songs that can provoke a communal groan of pleasure with just one decisively played chord. John is at his best in this playful, exhilarated mode, hands flying up and down the keys. A triumphant take on “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was accompanied by a montage of exaggerated fight sequences from films, and a gleeful CGI clip of John sailing through the air to kick an opponent; “I’m Still Standing” came with footage of him in everything from Spitting Image to The Simpsons. This was Elton John at his most fun, an unapologetic celebration of his camp side.

Members of the audience wore oversized glasses or replicas of John’s Dodger Stadium concert outfit; he is an artist who has transcended into icon status, with all its parody-able accoutrements. His venerated back catalogue is perfect for a festival crowd – full of soaring melodies with distinct, memorable lyrics, or wordless refrains made for mass chanting. John was, to use his phrase, “in good voice” – though his vocals were effortful, and he relied on guest stars for more hydraulic performances, he still sang with the force of the original records. He mostly stayed at his piano, eyes on the keys, tongue darting in and out of his mouth in concentration, nodding with a gratified smile, like Churchill the insurance dog: “Oh yes!” At the end of each song he gingerly hauled himself up to wave to the crowd. On his feet he looked statuette-esque: tiny, glistening, revered.

[See also: Can’t Glastonbury do better than its dull, white, male headliners?]

There were moments of absurdity, from the saccharine to the unintentionally comic. Every time he stood up John hiked up his lamé trousers, ill-fitting to the point of falling down, a motion which suddenly transformed him into an ageing bingo caller. A series of on-stage guest singers – Rina Sawayama, Jacob Lusk from Gabriels, the TikTok-famous Stephen Sanchez, and Brandon Flowers from the Killers – lavished more and more cloying praise on John. “I love you, we all love you!” said Sawayama, while Flowers, looking like a waxwork Republican senator, pressed his hand to his heart every time he looked over at John, as if about to recite the pledge of allegiance. “What good is a hero if they’re not kind?” Sanchez asked. “You’re my hero because you’re kind.” (Sanchez did John a favour in one respect, illustrating the difference between a viral but disposable pop song and a truly enduring one: the audience certainly knew some of the words to his social media hit “Until I Found You”, but could barely be bothered to sing along.)

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When John performed his soppiest ballads – “Your Song”, “Candle in the Wind”, and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” – black and white images of Marilyn Monroe and George Michael were combined with monochrome footage of John, as if memorialising himself while still very much alive. Oscar Wilde described sentimentality as the attempt to experience the “luxury of having an emotion without having to pay for it”. This was John in sentimental mode: his performance had the feel of someone waving goodbye with a tear-soaked hankie when they fully intend to return the next day. Elton John first began announcing he would be retiring from touring as early as the 1970s. This headline set has been described as “his last UK gig” by the festival. On stage, John himself said the performance was “a special and emotional moment for, me because it may be my last ever show in the UK”. Emphasis on the “may”.

But John’s records are more than robust enough to support the weight of all this additional schmaltz. These are the kind of songs that are so embedded in the cultural consciousness that it’s easy to forget their individuality and their specific emotional register, the strange magic they contain. Closing with a euphoric mass singalong of “Rocket Man”, and more fireworks, John played the final note multiple times, stretching out the moment, reluctant to let it end.

[See also: Elton John is saying goodbye, for one more time]

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