Rocket Man

Elton John triumphs over Formula 1's dicey conditions with soaring Austin show

Elton John triumphs over F1's dicey conditions with soaring Austin set

Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Despite the rain, thousands stayed at COTA Sunday night to see Sir Elton John. Photo by Daniel Cavazos
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Elton John played from his catalog of greatest hits. Photo by Daniel Cavazos
Davey Johnstone at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Longtime Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone. Photo by Daniel Cavazos
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
The Rocket Man's nickname headed the back of a most magnificent sparkling jacket.  Photo by Daniel Cavazos
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Favorite performances of the evening included "Candle in the Wind" and "Bennie and the Jets." Photo by Daniel Cavazos
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Davey Johnstone at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend
Elton John at Circuit of the Americas F1 Weekend

If it seemed all weekend that Formula 1 fans couldn’t catch a break, that was by and large true. Those that journeyed by car and bus to Circuit of The Americas Sunday, though, found themselves witness to a truly big sports moment as Lewis Hamilton clinched a championship with three races left on F1’s 2015 calendar. And while some headed for the exits following the podium ceremony, many hung back for perhaps the biggest concert in the venue’s history: a two-hour greatest hits set from Sir Elton John.

Since the track’s infield was the general admission lawn and the track itself was the VIP seating area, a 90-minute changeover period ensued after the race. Despite the rain, everything came together, with John and his five-piece band emerging just before 6 pm to an enthusiastic response.

John wasted no time getting to crowd favorites: He led with a four-song mini set from 1973 classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that included “The Bitch Is Back,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and the ubiquitous “Candle in the Wind.” The fact that John could burn the biggest-selling single of the past 50 years just 10 minutes into his set said more about the depth of his catalog than John did via stage banter.

John’s band mostly plays to stay out of his way. Longtime drummer Nigel Olsson plays a subtle, behind-the-beat style, leaving the flourishes to counterpart percussionist John Mahon. Guitarist Davey Johnstone took a few moments toward the end of numbers for guitar riffs, but all seemed aware that John’s vocals and piano — and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics — are the foundation of the band. For his part, John’s piano solo midset just before “Rocket Man” was the rarest of animals: an instrumental bit that was also a highlight of the set. The crowd showed excitement at John’s hands working magic on his Yamaha. 

For an artist known for dramatic outfits and gestures, the John was all business Sunday. Between-song banter was minimal. Personal touches were left to a video montage during “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” where John and partner David Furnish appeared as figures atop a wedding cake and their children’s photos sprouted from animated flowers.

Aside from a brief nod to Oklahoma legend Leon Russell on “Hey Ahab,” John managed the set of hits and popular catalog cuts like “Burn Down The Mission” with the impeccable musicianship and (still) strong vocal chops that have kept him on the arena circuit for over four decades. COTA has big shoes to fill for future F1 post-parties. This performance will note the high-water mark to aim for moving forward.