“Shut Up and Play the Hits” isn’t just a documentary about LCD Soundsystem’s farewell concert. It’s also a great mantra for headliners playing a music festival when their last no. 1 record charted before the median attendee was born.
Commanding the Lands End stage as Outside Lands’ final performer, Elton John played a higher hits-to-everything-else ratio than even Paul McCartney did in 2013. He opened with “The Bitch Is Back” and “Bennie and the Jets,” and launched into a nice, unbroken string of ’70s favorites: “Tiny Dancer,” “Daniel,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Rocket Man,” while the latter half of the just-under-two-hour set leaned harder on the ’80s, with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Sad Songs (Say So Much),” and “I’m Still Standing.” There was no surprise guest George Michael on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” sadly.
John’s 1986 vocal cord surgery rendered him more or less incapable of hitting the high notes, and while the efforts taken to prop him up run from the obvious (dropping down an octave) to the artful (backup singers taking the reins for a second), it’s just not accurate to deride Elton John as an Elton John cover band — one of whose members is still present, incidentally. To his credit, he’s still putting out new music; to his greater credit, he didn’t really subject us to any of it. The old stuff sounded great.
Always flamboyant, he’s gone full diva, dressing in a blue sparkly coat that hovered between Joan Collins and Rod Roddy from The Price is Right, and climbing off the piano to solicit applause after nearly every song (and maybe giving the voice a rest). I’m still standing, indeed.
There were definitely moments of cheesiness, and not just because John played “Candle in the Wind.” (For what it’s worth, he sidestepped “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). A lot of the visuals had a strangely Max Headroom-type feel, and the montage of Elton-through-the-years superimposed over vibing piano keyboards was kind of a groaner.
John hinted at a possible retirement, noting that he wanted to spend time with “his boys.” (The 68-year-old knight and his 52-year-old husband David Furnish have two sons under age five, born via surrogates.) So if this was your first time seeing him live, it might also be your last. And diva or not, John expressed a lot of gratitude for his longer career and San Francisco’s part in it. He also played “Burn Down the Mission.” Did he even realize what a hornet’s nest that is?
It didn’t matter, because after wrapping up a Sunday night set with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” Elton John came out for a single-song encore: the unbeatable “Crocodile Rock.” And so Outside Lands went down with the zippiest, most shamelessly derivative song in the old master’s catalog. I ate some porcini donuts and some chimichurri fries this weekend, and saw Billy Idol and Kendrick Lamar and Mac Sabbath and St. Vincent. But the biggest kick I ever got, was doing a thing called the Crocodile Rock.