FORT WORTH -- The lyric could not have been more fitting if it had been written backstage: "I'm still standing, after all this time."
Elton John sang the line with gusto, midway through a sold-out show Saturday night at the Fort Worth Convention Center, his first appearance in the city in nearly 40 years.
After a string of middling albums mixed with a successful if uninspired tour that's lasted nearly a decade, John has come roaring back with a critically acclaimed new album, The Union.
But the record, produced by Fort Worth's ubiquitous T Bone Burnett, not only illustrates that John is still essential. (Burnett, in a bit of cosmic synergy, was performing across town at 8.0 to close out the Lone Star International Film Festival; John dedicated the evening to him.) The 14-song collection also served to dust off singer-songwriter and Oklahoma native Leon Russell, an early champion of John's who had languished in relative obscurity after enjoying a brief run in the 1970s as a go-to collaborator.
Russell has joined John for a string of arena dates, an opportunity for both men to demonstrate that time may have thrown a few punches, but they remained unbowed. For more than 21/2 hours, together and separately, John and Russell delivered bravura performances that had the crowd frequently leaping to its feet for standing ovations. The pair played all but two songs from The Union, allowing the country-gospel feel to take hold. In many ways, the sound and style of The Union harks back to a time when both men were at the pinnacle of their craft, a fact reflected in the intensity and honesty of tracks like Hey Ahab and the stirring When Love Is Dying.
Although the boisterous crowd sat respectfully as John and Russell worked through the new material, it was the classics they came for. And John did not disappoint them: the oh-so-appropriate Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting, Philadelphia Freedom, Levon and a monumental rendition of Rocket Man showed John in solid voice, backed by his always-sharp band and fiery backup singers.
Weathered by passing years but rejuvenated by a love of craft, John and Russell remain as vital as ever.
Here's some video I shot last night of Elton John and Leon Russell performing, together and separately.
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic. 817-390-7713