Elton John, Madison Square Garden, December 4, 2013

Elton John was the first great pop artist of my sentience, and Sir Elton stands above all his pop peers except maybe Stevie Wonder in the period between the end of the Beatles and Michael Jackson’s solo career: Wonder had a broader peak but John’s jaw-dropping streak of seven #1 albums over a four-year interval in the early 70s demonstrates his sheer dominance. What I remember best is that his music was omnipresent: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was as likely to be in a college dorm room as on a pre-teen’s Christmas wish list; his 19 top-20 singles in the ‘70s soaked up AM during that decade; and if you flipped over to FM you’d hear deep cuts like “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” and “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” in between Pink Floyd and Dr. John. Heck, “Bennie and the Jets” even went top 20 on the Hot Soul charts.

In spite of all that, I’m not surprised that John’s Madison Square Garden show last Wednesday evening was the first time I’d seen him live. I was already musically jaded by the time I was old enough to go out to see concerts on my own, and as punk and new wave crested, John descended into a personal and professional purgatory. So at age 50 the time seemed appropriate for me to pay respects to His Bitchiness, and I got exactly what I had hoped for: Elton John making his case as some combination of Great Artist and Great Human Being, the two together being something that only perhaps—hey, how about this?—Stevie Wonder could lay similar claim to.

John crafted his argument with a 27-song set that lasted nearly three hours and never strayed more than a song or so from the foundational recordings that most of the audience came for (although he did have time to plug his stripped-down and better-than-you’d-expect new one, The Diving Board). Although John carries more weight around the middle than he should, his energy never flagged: there were no intermissions, no long instrumental breaks for him to wonder off. There was indeed a simpatico band. Longtime drummer Nigel Olson was unrecognizable from his early days of flowing black hair and he required a second percussionist to fill in the rhythm, but fuck you Davey Johnstone for being as towering and libidinal as you were in the 70s. Two Croatian cherubs added rock’n’roll cellos, and the backup singers included an evidently ailing but unflagging Rose Stone among them. But John carried the band from behind the piano with his choppy honky-tonk chords and gospel-inspired vamping that extended those songs you know by heart just enough to make each one slightly better than the radio in your head recalls.

What made the evening more than a mere period review  was the highly conversational between-song patter, which was never indulgent or preachy yet helped my wife and I recall how unselfishly John has used his fame and wealth. From 9/11 to his massive contributions to HIV research and education (the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised over $200 million to date) to the astonishing and even flabbergasting agape he has demonstrated through his associations with notoriously problematic public figures like Rush Limbaugh and Eminem, he’s had a social impact few if any artists of the 20th century can match. Funny and clever too—a joke about his sexuality during the introduction of the cellists threw in a reference to Pussy Riot, pretty much wrapping the whole evening up into a package with a rainbow-colored ribbon. Ladies and gentlemen, Sir Elton John.