“Good evening Leeds!” Elton John shouts from behind his gleaming, black grand piano. “It’s great to be back in Yorkshire, in this wonderful city.”
Clad in a red dress shirt and purple robe emboldened with an eye-watering array of diamond sequins, John’s taste for the flamboyant has not been diminished by the passage of time.
Returning to the First Direct Arena for the first time since he officially opened it almost four years ago, the veteran singer-songwriter is fully recovered from a bacterial infection that waylaid his world tour in April – and though his voice is not what it used to be, he more than compensates with sheer magnetic charisma.
Entering to the snarling glam rock of The Bitch is Back, John and his long-time five-piece band rattle off almost two-dozen tracks spanning the length and breadth of his career, from 1970s self-titled album through last year’s Wonderful Crazy Night.
The hits are aplenty – a stately I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, a stirring Philadelphia Freedom, a dainty Tiny Dancer. Lesser-known gems are treated with as much reverence too; Have Mercy on the Criminal bleeds out into a slow blues ballad from its disco-funk intro, whilst latter-day hit I Want Love is dedicated to the victims of the Manchester and London attacks.
John spends the show seated at his instrument; but after a mournful, spine-tingling rendition of Rocket Man, he runs to the front of the relatively spartan stage to clasp hands with fans overcome by emotion.
“I was in Acton for Christmas last year when I heard my good friend George Michael had died,” he notes sombrely at one point. “It understandably ruined Christmas for me.” He dedicates Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me – the song given a new lease of life by a duet with the late Wham! singer – in his memory.
From there on, the mood shifts back to a party atmosphere as John sprints through a clutch of his most iconic feel-good anthems – I’m Still Standing, Crocodile Rock, Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.
When he re-emerges for a lush, beautiful rendition of Candle in the Wind, he prefaces it by signing autographs for five minutes, ever dutiful to the outstretched hands holding records.
Often, arena acts keep their audiences at arm’s length in a sterile stadium; Elton John remains a fine showman and entertainer who understands the personal touch.