By SUZANNA LOURIE
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Bitch is Back — and when Reginald Dwight (yes, really), also known as Sir Elton Hercules John comes to town, traffic stops to make way.
Though the 2.2-mile drive from Broadway to Saratoga Performing Arts Center took more than an hour, neither traffic nor torrential rain could keep away the thousands of fans who braved the elements for the rare opportunity to see Britain’s own “Rocket Man.”
A Live Nation security guard said the venue expected a crowd of 17,000, but with people still pouring in more than an hour from the show’s start time and fans posted up to listen outside the gates, the number could have easily soared closer to SPAC’s 25,000 capacity.
Clad in a long, black tuxedo jacket decorated with roses and a diamond bedazzled skull and crossbones, Elton’s costume wasn’t quite as over-the-top as back in his ’70s and ’80s pomp, but with his signature tinted-shades, Elton’s stage presence still radiated.
Warmly greeting the audience, Elton remembered the first time he stepped on the SPAC stage 40 years ago and the last time he performed here 22 years ago.
It could have just as easily been 22 days as the sparkling songster opened strong with, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” his pipes and his piano-playing anything but rusty.
Noteworthy performances by shaggy-haired Scottish guitarist Davey Johnstone and longtime drummer Nigel Olsson strengthened the force of Elton’s piano and vocals.
Two of his soul-singing backup singers also included Rose Stone, co-founder of the psych-rock ’70s soul group Sly and the Family Stone, and Lisa Stone, Rose’s daughter.
Seamlessly flowing into popular single “Tiny Dancer,” Elton had the crowd singing, smiling and swaying along in their seats.
With more than 250 million records sold, Elton John proved he is timeless by drawing in a mix of youngsters, rowdy teens and nostalgic baby-boomers, all of whom could connect with some aspect of his four-decade career.
For someone who has played a countless number of concerts and churned out 30 albums, Sir Elton never let his skill, energy and gratitude for the crowd fade throughout the nearly three-hour-long show.
In response, the fans never quit cheering for the man who has influenced the world with his music and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998 for his service to charitable organizations including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
A vibrant version of “Hey Ahab,” a hip-shaking tune from his 2010 album, “The Union,” a collaboration with Leon Russell, had Elton jumping up and down, urging the crowd to clap along.
Other highlights included a powerful, prolonged rendition of “Rocket Man,” interlaced with crescendos and piano solos, and a pitch-perfect version of “Bennie and the Jets.”
Elton masterfully conducted the crowd’s energy, calming it down with “Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” then amping it up with the loud anthem, “The Bitch is Back.”
Throughout it all, Elton’s gusto and gratitude stayed strong as he fist-pumped, pounded and stood to wave and thank the audience after nearly each track — he even took time to sign autographs near the end.
“When I first played here 40 years ago, it was incredible and still is,” Elton said before the finale. “I want to thank you for being here — thank you to everyone on the lawn, thank you for buying a ticket, thank you for loving me for all these years. I want to dedicate this song to all of you to have happiness and peace and to thank you for supporting me for so long.”
With that, Elton laid his cards on the table and gave a striking final performance of “Your Song,” a love song prolonged through the generations with its memorable role in the 2001 movie “Moulin Rouge.” As he sang, fans could be seen wiping their eyes.
As the crowd trickled out, no one pushed, no one shoved and all around you could hear murmurs of bedazzled fans telling each other things like, “I’m speechless,” or “Man, that was amazing.”
We can only hope he doesn’t wait another 22 years before he takes the SPAC stage once again.