Sir Elton John In Beijing, Reviewed (Newsflash: He’s Old)

Video by Katie

By Kelly Mason

Still a legend, but Sir Elton John was looking slightly less fabulous than usual Sunday night despite his electric blue glittery jacket and matching glasses. This was my first major concert in China, so I was prepared for the unexpected. After all these years, I wondered if he’d still have it. I wondered how Chinese crowds would respond to such a legend, and I really wondered if he was going to play his Lion King stuff. I’ll be honest, I completely, unashamedly love the Lion King soundtrack.

First, the crowds. I got to the concert late, and as I ran through the ampitheater lobby, I couldn’t even be sure the concert had started. Where was the cheering? I could hear music, but no other signs of life. Were they playing recordings of his songs before he started? No… they wouldn’t. Would they? But then again, it’s a concert. And it’s Elton John. Shouldn’t I hear people going NUTS?

Welcome to concerts in China. You don’t get out of your seat and act a fool and yell things at the stage from three levels up, as I sadly realized when my friend and I were sssh‘ed by all the people around us for our attempts at witty remarks in reaction to the huge neon “EJ <3 BJ” sign on the ground just in front of the stage. Mind-blowing.

Nope, instead you sit quietly and observe. Standing up and dancing is really only for the truly dedicated fans who paid the eleventy billion kuai to get floor seats, and loud talking will get you a lot of mean looks. It’s nothing like going to a movie theatre here, where it’s probable that in your immediate vicinity someone is talking on the phone or snoring because his girlfriend dragged him to some lame rom-com. Anyway, my point is that the crowd experience was super awkward.

Elton dedicated the concert to Ai Weiwei, who watched from backstage. I’ll let others comment on that, but I’ll just mention that it was definitely a good move in terms of the crowd and publicity. If you got there late and missed it like I did, don’t fret – every news source will fill you in soon.

So on to the important question – was the performance worth it? And the answer is… kind of. I don’t want to take anything away from Elton John as a musician. The guy is a legend for a reason. His songs are still great, and he’s still a great pianist (chuckle if you must). Get ready, because here comes the but. BUT he showed no excitement, just like a lot of people had feared. I will say he looked and sounded like he was sick, in which case he was a real trooper. Regardless, there was no energy. And exactly zero high notes.

What’s Crocodile Rock without the high notes? I’ll tell you. Because it happened. It’s a quiet, confused stadium with a few people singing the “lalalalala” at various pitches and tempos. It was awkward – even Elton looked uncomfortable and unsure what to do. Naturally this didn’t stop me from belting it out and playing the air piano like the other slightly-too-dedicated fans (I’ll be honest, I do that at home, too), but that’s not what I went to see Elton John for. I paid to see the fabulousness that is Elton John complete with his sparkly clothes, ridiculous glasses, AND school-girl octave high notes (pretty sure that’s the term for it).

Luckily, his supporting band was phenomenal and partially made up for Elton John’s lethargy. Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone, the drummer and guitarist, have been with Elton on and off for over 40 years. Along with 51-year-old newcomer Matt Bisonette on bass guitar, these senior citizens still pack a lot of flair. My personal favorite was Johnstone, who, by the way, from three levels up looks exactly like Tom Petty. I’ve never seen an old man look so cool rocking a banjo. The backup singers, including Sly’s daughter sister, Rose Stone, and her daughter, Lisa (of Sly and the Family Stone), did a good job of picking up the slack on the upper registers. If only everyone had been there to see the band.

In hindsight it was a pretty cool experience and I’m really glad that I saw Elton John in concert, all things considered. But maybe I’m biased: he played Circle of Life as his finale.

(Ed’s note, 11/28, 11:20 am: A correction has been appended to reflect that Sly’s daughter sister and niece, and not Sly himself, was doing the backup vocals.)

Kelly works as a freelancer on a smorgasbord of projects. She can be reached at

    7 Responses to “Sir Elton John In Beijing, Reviewed (Newsflash: He’s Old)”

    1. Jack

      Sounds like you missed Two Cellos, Elton’s incredible warm-up act, and his seamless segue from their take on Highway to Hell into The Bitch is Back. It never pays to be late to a concert by an old pro.

      In my seating section – on the right side of the arena, quite close to the front but not in floor seats – everyone was talking, cheering, singing along and, very occasionally, getting up and dancing. And everyone was in tears for Circle of Life. I didn’t even get shushed when I was laughing my ass off at the ridiculous glo-light signboards.

      Also, I think for a 60-odd-year old who was no Mick Jagger even in 1969, Elton did marvellously. Two hours thirty minutes without a break – not even Cher has achieved that, and she’s 103!

      Sounds like you weren’t best-placed to enjoy yourself.

    2. King Tubby

      @jtdj. Tremendous observation. Now if it was Sly, he would have probably lost his composure and wasted a few Chinese/loawai promoters.

      “Don’t call me nigger, whitey”, and you can hear the marching dust affecting his vocals.

      A band which still holds their own today.



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