Somewhere in the mid-seventies, I put down the guitar my father taught me to play and started playing piano. The reason – Elton John. When the songs from Tumbleweed Connection started to play on AM radio stations, the soulful voice, the bright melodies and the solid piano rhythms left me vexed.

That’s why when Elton announced he would be playing Freedom Hall in Johnson City, I had to go. It was on my bucket list and within minutes of the announcement, the concert sold out. In fact, my own tickets were purchased on eBay less than a week before the show. Final auction price – 2 tickets $350.00.

Last week was crazy too. I had to resort to eBay because I’ve been covered up with meetings, proposals and plenty of music. Truth is, the past few weeks have been the busiest on record, but I knew that (besides the stress) attending this show would be the compliment to my 50th birthday and a week of live performances at Bristol Rhythm and Roots.

It’s been a while since I attended a concert at Freedom Hall. Concerts like this used to happen every weekend – not anymore. In fact – it’s rare.

Driving to the auditorium, Tracy Strickler and I were recanting our teenage memories as we drove slowly around the venue looking for a place to park.

The first thing I noticed when I parked the Jeep was an eerie silence. Usually, a concert parking lot is abuzz with loud music, crazed fans and an energy all its own. Looking around, there were a lot of older people at this show. Some with canes, some with Elton John LP covers and groups with blinking sunglasses ala Elton of the late seventies.

It didn’t take long to get into Freedom Hall. No hassle really, no frisking and no homeland security and like all experiences as you grow older, the hall seemed smaller than I remembered. The stage was set up on the floor and all of the sound gear was flown to the ceiling so that everyone had a good view. At stage left, a Yamaha 9-foot concert grand was reserved, shining its ebony curves for the main attraction – a small paper setlist taped in the upper left corner of the keyboard cover.

There was a large crowd tonight, but a polite gathering. The line to the ladies restroom was 10 times as long as the men’s and the concessions were eased by the drink machines in the lobby. Inflation has influenced the price of t-shirts too as several fans doled out another $45. At least they “got the t-shirt.”

We had good seats on the second row of the lower level tonight just above the floor in LL26. Our seats were reserved, so we decided to take a few moments before the 8pm showtime to mill around and take in the spectacle and mingle.

Dave Carter spooked me first from above as I walked underneath him in the front row of the upper deck. A dear radio personality, friend and life-long music instigator, I was glad to see him at the show and we talked about the last time Elton played Johnson City in his solo performance.

A few steps later, Cornelia Laemmli Orth conductor of the Symphony of the Mountains was walking back from concessions. I recently was introduced to this intriguing local artisan at the downtown office and enjoy talking with her about the region. She has a deep passion for all things musical and always a delight to share stories with.

Alan Prince has been a part of more live performances than just about anyone in the Tri-Cities. In the moment we left Cornelia, he came up behind me and we started to discuss the stage gear. All musicians like to marvel at toys, but one thing he said will always resonate about the night’s performance.

Alan mentioned. “This concert is sort of like the show Elvis played in Johnson City.”

This show, memorialized in a video fragment on YouTube was the last time Elvis was in Northeast Tennessee and rumors are Elton will be retiring from the stage soon. At 63 years of age, he may not perform again – but after watching him – that very well not come true.

There wasn’t an announcement in advance about an opening act, but when the lights went down, the fans roared and Elton appeared on the large video screens on each side of the stage.

He welcomed everyone and introduced “2 Cellos” and what a surprise these Croation performers gave to the Johnson City crowd. Seated on the right side of the stage, they creeped into the auditorium with a memorable Michael Jackson cover – Smooth Criminal, Nirvana’s Teen Spirt and finally…a distorted cello version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” At that moment, I could hear the riff from that rock and roll standard as it may have played out decades ago when Angus Young sprinted around the coliseum. Halfway through the song, the duo was joined by a drummer and then the band suddenly appeared to open the set with Elton performing ‘Saturday Nights Allright for Fighting.’

That was a sneaky way to start the show. 2 Cellos just seemed to merge into an amazing songbook of some of the most iconic pop songs of the last thirty plus years. From Saturday Night to ‘Bennie and the Jets,’ Elton was striking the keyboard like a madman. His voice obviously lower than his youth, but strong as ever and his piano work was articulate, brilliant and amazing.

One of the most interesting things I noted about the setlist was the reliance on early songs. The most current song was ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” but beyond that – classic, organic and iconic songs (no movie soundtracks – thank you). Oh, the crowd was thrilled to year ‘Tiny Dancer,’ ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Haters,’ ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ The Bitch is Back and one of my favorites, Levon. But it was a treat to hear obscure songs like Grey Seal and Holiday Inn make it into the set.

Elton was gracious after every song. Standing up from the piano in his sequined jackets, he raised his hands to the audience and fielded a few roses thrown to the stage. He told several stories about the songs and made no haste blazing through solos supported by an amazing band.

Together just like they were in 1971, Nigel Olsson (sans his long black mane of his younger days) was greyed with white gloves and Dave Johnstone had same blond (real or faux) locks long after all these years.

With the 2cellos on stage for most of the show, the Elton John Band included a powerful quartet of background singers. As he introduced each of the ladies, we were treated to a close up of Rose Stone – one of the original Sly and the Family Stone.

I always remember Ray Cooper’s amazing work on percussion for Elton’s live performances and this year John Mahon did an amazing job with the delicate rhythms, high background harmonies and a treasure chest of percussive nuances throughout the night.

In the middle of the set, the lights went out and Elton went backstage. Keyboardist Kim Bullard began to play Funeral for a Friend and my night was complete. Elton arrived in a new black sequined jacket, sat down at the piano, wrapped up the musical eulogy and rocked through Love Lies Bleeding and another hour of amazing songs that will forever mark the past forty years.

As he returned for the encore, instead of jumping back on the piano, he spent perhaps 10 minutes signing autographs for fans who rushed the stage. The cameras focused on individuals wielding old album covers, tickets, t-shirts and even a young lady with a sign that read “sign my cast.”

Elton worked one side of the stage to the other before sitting down to thank everyone for coming out. He stated that

“we know times are hard and we can’t tell you how much we appreciate you”

before launching into the ballad “Your Song” – an appropriate love song and favorite wedding soundtrack for centuries to come.

When the music was over the crowd seemed warm with appreciation for such a enduring concert. The stories over the next few days from people I have met seemed to describe the concert as a personal valentine from one of the greatest performers and songwriters of our time. There were seniors, teenagers bouncing on their seats, adults with kooky sunglasses and people in wheel chairs.

Elton John is truly in a league with few songwriters. With so many memorable classic songs, it’s easy to see why his music will certainly be soundtrack of a generation, a testament to open minded individuals and inspiration for plenty of piano players well into the future.

Thanks for the great songs Rocket Man!