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Concert Review: These are the hands of Elton John at PPL Center

The thing you notice about Elton John are his hands.

Sir Elton has big, wide, almost squat, hands. His fingers are huge. They seem to be the size of potatoes, especially on the big-screen video during his sold-out concert Sept. 27 at PPL Center, Allentown.

These are not the aquiline, long-fingered, philosophical hands one would expect of a pianist who plays in the classical style, as Sir Elton often does with peels of Chopinesque runs, arpeggios and filigrees that roam the gamut of the baby grand (with a mirror the length of those 88s, all the better to see his hands reflected in tandem on the stage-wide screen behind him and his band). No, these are fists, plain and simple, the hands of a boxer accustomed to pounding, although fully capable of tickling, the ivories.

These are working-man’s hands; the hands of a stevedore who’s unloaded not sacks of grain, but loads of emotions; the hands of a stout farmer who’s plowed the ivories for some 47 years since his first album.

These are the hands of a craftsman, who can bang out boogie woogie (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), groove to bouncy pop (“Sad Songs Say So Much”), perform full-out rockers (“Burn Down the Mission”), cavort on do-wop influenced rock ‘n’ roll (the approximate two-and-one-half hour, some 24-song concert closer, “Crocodile Rock”), tease out rhythm and blues (“I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues”) and explore every black and white key and the cracks between in extended explorations for minutes at a time with song-title guessing intros (the elegiac concert-opener “Funeral For a Friend-Love Lies Bleeding”).

And if the 69-year-old isn’t leaping horizontally, legs flying backward, from the piano anymore, he still reminds us of those diva days as he hops up on the piano right above the keyboard to vogue a pose, appropriately enough for the stridently pumped-up “The Bitch is Back,” with the stage drenched in red light and the title spelled out defiantly on the back screen. Indeed, Sir Elton is back. Of course, he never went away. That he doesn’t take all of this too seriously is evident as he milks the applause, waving his hands and arms for more after his 1950s’ referenced “Bennie and the Jets.”

Sir Elton wore a sequined, knee-length jacket, with matching trousers, an open-collar dark blue shirt, and eyeglasses that reflected the keyboards in the tinted glass, as if the keyboards were in his eyes, in his head, in his mind.

Indeed, they are in the music he wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin to become one of the top-selling solo artists of all time with 35 gold records, 25 platinum albums, 29 consecutive Top 40 hits, and more than 250 million records sold worldwide.

In his Allentown concert debut, Sir Elton set a new attendance record at PPL Center with more than 10,000 avid fans there. He took the stage at about 8:04 p.m. and left the stage after an encore at about 10:42 p.m.

In addition to several solo turns at the piano (notably for the biggest selling single of all time, “Candle in the Wind ’97” (more than 37 million copies sold), in which he morphed his Marilyn Monroe tribute to honor Lady Di, Sir Elton was backed by a multi-dimensional band that included two drummers at complete rock band drum kits, and synthesizers replicating string parts, plus backing vocals from Nigel Olsson, who was in his original three-piece band, drums; Davey Johnstone, who first recorded with him in 1971 and joined the band a year later, guitar; John Mahon, percussion; Kim Bullard, keyboards, and Matt Bissonette, bass.

And while, since 1969 he has played more than 4,000 concerts worldwide, Sir Elton made the Allentown concert and its audience feel, well, as if he was singing to each person, not always easy to do in an arena. “We are very happy to be here in Allentown,” he said after his third song. “We hope you will enjoy what we play for you.” There soon followed a wistful “Daniel”; a gut-wrenching “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” and two songs from his latest album, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” for which his tour is named: “Looking Up” and “A Good Heart,” the latter, he said, “my favorite track on the album.”

Considering that the most extensive choreography amounted to that brief lounging atop the piano and standing up or crouching at the piano as he played, and that the musicians mostly stayed at their instruments, other than Johnstone, who strolled the stage front and evoked a rocker’s stance for some guitar solos, Sir Elton and his band really rocked out, no more so than on the disco era gem, “Philadelphia Freedom,” which, as with his other uptempo tunes, had the audience on its feet, dancing in place.

Sir Elton was in fine voice throughout, his stentorian baritone, at times now more basso profondo, rang out across the hall with an operatic import. The concert was nicely paced, with rockers followed by ballads. And it was those hands again that stood out, as gorgeous clusters of chords spun forth, again a lovely intro to a song unknown, in this instance, “Rocket Man.”

There followed an exuberantly delicate “Tiny Dancer”; “Levon,” the latter with a seemingly improvised jam with Johnstone, and then one of the concert’s and Sir Elton’s catalogue set pieces, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” with the stage bathed in gold light.

Sir Elton pulled out a chestnut, “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” from the album, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player” (1973). Next, it was Sir Elton solo at the piano for “Baby, You’re The One,” and then a gorgeous “Your Song,” his first hit record in 1970.

With that, Sir Elton paused to say in what a seemed heartfelt thanks, “I’ve been doing this since 1969 and it’s been an amazing journey. And there’s one thing that’s constant. It’s you guys.”

With that, he launched into “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Then, he trounced into a triumphant “I’m Still Standing,” at the end of which Sir Elton slammed down the top of the piano. With hands like his, Sir Elton can slam as much as he wants.

PRESS PHOTO BY LORI PATRICKElton John opens Sept. 27 PPL Concert with “Funeral For a Friend-Love Lies Bleeding” before record-setting 10,000 in Allentown. Copyright - Lori Patrick