Elton John performed the equivalent of 40 years of greatest hits for a sold-out Tucson Arena audience. ALLISON MULLALY FOR THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Sir Elton John almost didn't make it to the Old Pueblo for his first concert here in a decade. But when he took the stage at Tucson Arena on Thursday night - 24 hours after he was stricken with food poisoning - he made the wait worth it for nearly 9,000 fans. For three hours, the Rocket Man danced us through a generation of song.

After every song he sang Thursday night, Elton John rose from his shiny black piano and bowed to the audience.

"Thank you," he said as the screams and applause drowned out any hope of hearing him. "Thank you so much."

Then he took a drink from a glass of water sitting in an ice bucket and sat back down. As he launched into the opening chords of each song, he flashed this quirky little grin to the audience.

The same little knowing smile came after every song - from "Rocket Man" to "Philadelphia Freedom," with hit after hit in between.

It reminded you of a piano bar dude pounding the keys in an intimate setting. Only this was the cavernous Tucson Arena, filled to the brim with folks who had waited a decade for John to return to Tucson only to be kept waiting one more day when food poisoning caused the singer to postpone Wednesday's show.

"I'm so sorry about yesterday and that I had to inconvenience you," he told them after tearing through a roaring performance of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." "I wasn't feeling well. I feel a little better. I cannot not come sing for you."

The 63-year-old singer-piano man warned the audience that he might have to slip off stage if he started feeling woozy. (That time came two hours into the nearly three-hour concert.)

The "Rocket Man" tour is a vast survey of John's four-decade career, covering enough highlights to fill a couple greatest-hits albums.

With the exception of a very cool piano medley that wove in the melodies of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Camptown Races," John resisted the urge to cram some of those songs into medleys.

Instead, he performed full lengths of "Philadelphia Freedom," "Something About the Way You Look Tonight," "Levon," "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets," "The Bitch is Back" and a dozen or more more songs.

After each one, John and his band - which includes longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone and original drummer Nigel Olsson - jammed. It was arena-rock-worthy, the kind of musical rants you'd expect coming from a guitar only they were coming from a piano.

John, dressed in a calf-length black coat with sparkling sequins and his "Rocket Man" album cover embroidered on the back, still has some mighty fierce piano chops. He banged on the keys with a ferociousness at the end of "Saturday Night" then gently coaxed a heartfelt melody at the end of "Candle In the Wind."

His vocal prowess has changed with his age. He can no longer hit those high notes in "Tiny Dancer," so he now sang it at a lower register that sounded every bit as controlled and smooth as it did when we saw him here 10 years ago.

But John is still a consummate entertainer. After returning to the stage, he apologized again and thanked the audience for their understanding. Then he ripped into "Bennie and the Jets" and the audience rushed to the front, many fans with items for John to sign. He obliged with dozens of autographs.

John performed a six-song encore that included "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King."

John closed the concert with "Your Song," which he dedicated to the audience for sticking with him throughout his 40-year career.


Elton John in concert Thursday night at the Tucson Arena.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.