Elton John
PNC Arena
Friday, March 16

“Elton! Elton! Elton!” The chant rang through Raleigh’s PNC Arena at earsplitting volume, 20,000 mostly middle-aged fans begging, pleading for one of pop music’s most enduring icons to return to the stage. They didn’t have to wait for long. After a few short minutes, Sir Elton John returned to the cushy leather chair in front of his shimmering grand piano. Bedecked in a black suit with a long jacket bedazzled with the Hindu god Shiva, he gave a rehearsed but genuine spiel about how great and receptive the audience had been. He then turned and began patiently twinkling through one of the most famous piano parts in the pop canon.

“Your Song,” the aging star’s first smash hit, was as hypnotic as ever, with John breathing charming life into Bernie Taupin’s deservedly overplayed words about fresh, blissfully awkward love. His seven-piece band slowly trickled back onto the stage, already changed into their relaxed post-show attire. Lush synthetic horns and gauzy cello enhanced the song’s beauty until they were lost amid the screaming of the enraptured crowd. After the song concluded, John turned to his audience and said, “That’s your song. Thank you.”

It was a moving moment in a show filled with more magic than one would expect from a 64-year-old, even if he is known as Captain Fantastic. But like all of Friday night’s greatest moments, it occurred with the audience at a fever pitch. More than any performer I’ve ever seen, John lives and dies by the energy level of his audience. During the show’s laundry list of enduring hits, John was often brilliant, willing his aged hands through intricate piano lines, finding refreshingly gritty power in his road-worn voice.

He kick-started the performance with three songs from the 1973 mega-hit Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, rewarding fans who showed up on time and hurrying stragglers into their seats. Up first was enduring bar-rock anthem “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” It rushed in on its lovably ham-fisted riff, John re-channeling Jerry Lee Lewis and attacking his keys with boozy aggression. Without stopping to catch a breath, the band jumped into “Bennie and the Jets,” John’s bouncing piano part covered-up in the technicolor glam of synths and strings. Underrated disco jam “Grey Seal” followed, John’s chords tangling gleefully with sparkling riffs as the propulsive rhythm rocketed forth with kinetic exuberance. The crowd roared its approval, and John’s legendary reputation was one with his present.

Unfortunately, not everything in the two-hour-plus set lived up to this high standard. When John approached his newer—and, for the most part, slower—songs, he faltered. Confronted with the unfamiliar and overwrought Civil War ballad “Gone to Shiloh” (from 2010’s The Union), the crowd’s enthusiasm diminished and took with it John’s energy. He lazily picked through simplistic patterns and gave little life to the song’s heavy-handed words. The band failed to provide any intrigue, settling for blasé string swells and limp guitar atmospherics.

John has clearly not tired of playing to adoring stadium crowds, but his vigor fades the moment they return to their seats. Next time, Elton, just play the hits. It’s what the people want, and it’s what you need.