Elton John has established himself across more than 50 years of performing as one of the most dynamic performers in the history of music.
From stage designs to lighting and costumes, John’s concerts have been feasts for the eyes. Still, those elements never overwhelmed the music. With one of the richest catalogs ever created by a solo artist, John has always had plenty of material to work with. In concert, he’s brought these songs to life, delivering deeper instrumentation, powerful emotion and an unmatched level of showmanship.
Simply put, these have always been must-go events. See for yourself: We’ve rounded up his 10 most legendary concerts, presenting them in chronological order below.
Aug. 25, 1970 at the Troubadour, Los Angeles
Elton John’s first concert on American soil was the stuff of legend, a powerhouse performance that announced his arrival on the musical landscape. He took the stage on Aug. 25, 1970 in front of roughly 300 people at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, and proceeded to blow the audience away with his showmanship. At various points, John threw his body in the air, kicked his piano bench over and fell to his knees while performing. “It was just all systems go,” he later recalled, looking back on that night. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success.” A report in the Los Angeles Times the next day predicted that John would become “one of rock’s biggest and most important stars.” They were right.
Feb. 5, 1972 at the Royal Festival Hall, London
John was churning out material at a prolific rate early in his career, releasing his first five studio albums in just three years. The pace was so fast that he barely had time to properly promote an LP before the next one was announced. Case in point: John began 1972 touring behind Madman Across the Water, yet almost immediately starting mixing in material that would arrive later that year on Honky Chateau. This concert, held at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall perched on the banks of the River Thames, featured many notable live debuts. Fans in attendance that night witnessed the first performances of nine songs which would appear on Honky Chateau, including “Honky Tonk,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and the now-iconic “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be a Long, Long Time).”
Nov. 28, 1974 at Madison Square Garden, New York
This wasn’t John’s first show at Madison Square Garden (that took place in 1973), but it’s perhaps his most memorable. He performed a set boasting such classic tunes as “Bennie and the Jets,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Daniel” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Still, the night’s biggest moment came when John welcomed his friend John Lennon to join him on stage. The appearance stemmed from a bet: When Elton sang on Lennon’s song “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” he made the former Beatle swear he’d perform with him if the tune hit No. 1 in America – and it did. So, Lennon joined Elton at MSG, performing three songs: “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” plus the Beatles classics “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sadly, this would prove to be the final concert performance of Lennon’s lifetime.
Oct. 25, 1975 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
In a career that has featured many unique costumes, the visuals from John’s 1975 performance at Dodger Stadium rank among his most famous. In fact, the sequined baseball uniform from that night became so iconic that it was used in many of the posters for the 2019 biopic, Rocketman. Of course, the outfit would never have attained such legendary status if the performance had been dull. Thankfully, “dull” is not a word in John’s vocabulary. He opened the night with solo renditions of “Your Song” and “I Need You to Turn To” before being joined by his band for such notable favorites as “Border Song,” “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Levon.” After a brief break – and a costume change into the aforementioned Dodgers uniform – John continued wowing the crowd, delivering more than three hours of music in total. The concert also included two Beatles covers. (Coincidentally, they were the most recent act to have played the famous venue.) Bernie Taupin and tennis star Billie Jean King also made guest appearances, but the night was unquestionably Elton John’s. “My fondest memory was the electricity from the crowd,” he said decades later. “The energy was palpable — you could feel it vibrating from your feet!”
May 28, 1979 at Rossiya Concert Hall, Moscow
John made history in both a musical and political form when he became the first Western rock star to play behind Russia’s Iron Curtain. The presentation was sparse, just John and his piano, with no backing band supporting his performance save for percussionist Ray Cooper. (Appropriately, John was supporting his A Single Man album.) He owned the stage, winning over a crowd that was made up of both fans and members of the KGB and Communist party. Footage from the performance would appear in the documentary To Russia … With Elton, while the official live recording of the concert was finally released on 2020’s Live From Moscow 1979 album.
Sept. 13, 1980 at Central Park, New York
You’ve never seen a grown man play “Your Song” while wearing a Donald Duck costume? Well, then you obviously weren’t among the 400,000 fans who filled Central Park to watch Elton perform in 1980. While the duck suit remains the most memorable image from that day (how could it not be?), John originally began his set in a military-style outfit, adorned with piano keys. Highlights included renditions of “Tiny Dancer,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Bennie and the Jets.” John even covered Lennon’s “Imagine” – perhaps hoping the former Beatles star might hear it from his nearby apartment at the Dakota. The night ended with John in his duck suit, performing a rocking rendition of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
Dec. 14, 1986 at Sydney Entertainment Centre, Sydney
Elton John found himself at a career crossroads when he visited Australia in 1986. Years of performing had left his vocal cords damaged, with polyps which would require surgery. Despite this, John pushed forward with the trek, even as he coughed up phlegm and blood on an almost nightly basis. His voice sounded rawer than ever, but it also had an intensity that added deeper emotional resonance to the material. Backed by a full symphony orchestra under the direction of James Newton Howard, John delivered passionate performances on the tour, culminating in this final stop in Sydney. The December performance would be captured on Elton John Live In Australia With the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, released the following year.
April 26, 1989 at Arena di Verona, Verona, Italy
A timeless talent performing in an ancient venue, John took the stage in a gorgeous Roman amphitheater built in 30 AD. John’s setlist included such then-new material as “I Don’t Wanna Go on With You Like That” (from 1988’s Reg Strikes Back), to classic hits like “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “Daniel” and “Candle in the Wind.” John even offered new takes on his tunes, including a soulful version of “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”. “With my backing singers, we injected some Gospel Soul into ‘Sad Songs,’ bringing the spirit of the Deep South into a 2,000-year-old amphitheater!” John later recalled.
Nov. 25, 1995 at Estadio Do Flamengo, Rio De Janeiro
Given Elton John’s flamboyance and the colorful culture of Rio, you knew his first tour of Brazil was bound to deliver some priceless moments. As John later recalled, fans “were launched with the drop of a curtain into a dancing, flag-waving, multi-hour sing-a-long frenzy!” With a crowd of more than 100,000 people hanging off of every note, John rocked through many of his best-known tunes including “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Bennie and the Jets.” Energy in the stadium was so high that night that John came back for three encores, only to be greeted by rapturous applause with each one.
March 25, 2007 at Madison Square Garden, New York
John has enjoyed many memorable nights at Madison Square Garden over the years, but this performance held special meaning. Not only was it his 60th performance at the legendary venue, but it coincided with John’s 60th birthday. The set included guest appearances by Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernie Taupin, as well as a recorded message by former President Bill Clinton. John also took the opportunity to delve into some of his less-performed tracks, playing “Where to Now St. Peter?,” “High Flying Bird” and “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” for the first time in more than a decade. (In fact, “Well-Known Gun” hadn’t been performed since 1972!) A two-disc DVD of the concert titled Elton 60 – Live at Madison Square Garden arrived later that year.
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