Review: Piano Men Elton John and Billy Joel prove it’s still rock and roll to them

03.31.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/David Duprey

Two superstars, two pianos, four decades of music and 3 ½ hours of wall-to-wall hits.

That’s what Elton John and Billy Joel brought to the Honda Center on the second night of their sold-out run at the Anaheim, Calif., arena March 30. The pair began touring together under the “Face 2 Face” banner in 1994 and started again a few weeks ago, reuniting for the first time since 2003.
Going to see Joel and John is a little like seeing your life flash before your eyes. John has charted 56 Top 40 singles, Joel 33. Combined, the two have sold more than 350 million records.

The tour is built to be the ultimate crowd pleaser and it’s gratifying to see these road veterans so willing to give the audience what it wants without any sign of battle fatigue at having to sing “Your Song” (the show opener) or “Piano Man” (as it must be, the show’s closer) for the 10,000th time. Joel was especially ingratiating-warmly thanking the audience for spending its collective hard-earned money on tickets in this tough, tough time.
The evening started with the two artists entering from opposite sides of the stage before sitting at facing, gleaming grand pianos. They played four songs  together with both their bands creating a glorious, full sound that filled the arena to the rafters. It’s a treat to see  Joel and John sing each other’s songs; Joel was especially resonate on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” his gruff vocals added a gravitas and a hint of desperation to the tune that John’s voice doesn’t.

The two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers trade off performing first and last night it was John’s turn to start. He opened with the elegant instrumental “Funeral for a Friend,” building it to a soaring crescendo before it crashes into “Love Lies Bleeding.” While John delivered the hits in his 11-song, 75-minute solo portion, he also delved deep into his catalog, playing “Burn Down the Mission” and “Madman Across the Water,” both of which left the hardcore faithful in paroxysms of joy. But  the casual fans were eager for the hits, singing rowdily along to “Crocodile Rock.” “Rocket Man” proved the emotional centerpiece of John’s set. Live, John stretches out the song far beyond the single version, breaking into an extended piano run that builds and builds, sending the song into the stratosphere and mirroring the protagonist’s mania as he becomes more and more unhinged. John then brings it back down into a bluesy stretch. It’s a magnificent reinterpretation that , of course, shows off John’s prodigious piano skills, but also takes the song in a deeply satisfying direction.

John spoke little to the audience, but was aggressively exuberant. After many songs, he’d leap off his piano bench and pump his arms like a pro athlete. He circled the rim of the stage, shaking hands and slapping palms with delighted audience members. His performing talent is still towering and his songs, written with lyricist Bernie Taupin, have taken on a timelessness that few pop artists can claim.

John left the audience standing on their feet, and Joel took advantage of that, opening with a blistering version of “Angry Young Man.” As some of you may recall, I recently gave Joel a less than stellar review  for his Feb. 12 solo show at the Agua Caliente Casino near Palm Springs, Calif. Everything that was wrong that night was right last night. Joel’s voice was strong and vibrant. It was tough and biting in all the places it should be, such as on “Moving Out” or “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and caressingly tender on the always lovely, “She’s Always a Woman.”

Unlike John, who dug deep into his catalog, Joel went for a greatest hits run and was rewarded with a crowd who stayed on its feet for much of his uptempo set (the one exception to the hit parade was a spicy take on “Zanzibar” from “52nd Street”). Joel had a slight edge on John when it came to interacting with the audience. His band mates roamed the stage and were much more playful that John’s crew, who sounded fantastic, but primarily stayed glued to their spots on stage. John’s piano was static, meaning ¼ of the audience (my side, coincidentally), stared as his back the whole time, while Joel’s piano spun around. Joel acknowledged the presence of the Righteous Bros.’ Bill Medley in the audience (which contained a surprising number of folks under 20) by launching into “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.” (By the way, Joel inducted the Righteous Bros. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

It’s stating the obvious to any true Joel fan, but his music is such an artful blend of so many American music forms. Yes, one of his most enduring influences is the Beatles, but Joel combines the sophistication and melodic charm of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters with the pop hooks and brilliance of the Brill Building era, plus the joy of ’50s Doo Wop and ’60s Motown. It was especially evident last night.

John came back on stage for a rabble-rousing, nine-song set with Joel that was highlighted by a ferociously fun “The Bitch is Back,” with Joel sliding across the top of his piano to lie on top of John’s; a deliciously uplifting “Uptown Girl,” and a raucous “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Shortly thereafter, Joel and John sent an exhausted but smiling audience back into the Southern California night.

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