For the third time in 15 years, Billy Joel and Elton John have teamed up with their dueling pianos co-headlining tour. It's a fool-proof idea, really, and therefore no surprise that it drew a near-capacity crowd to the Scottrade Center last night. Both men have racked up dozens of hit songs and sold millions of records, and their common bond -- the primacy of the grand piano -- is more than enough to unite them.
The show began and ended with Elton and Billy facing each other from the piano bench, trading songs back and forth and singing lead on each other's biggest hits. The show started with Elton's "Your Song" and moved into Joel's "Just the Way You Are," and it became increasingly difficult to determine who was singing without the aid of the Jumbotron screen. I attribute this to Joel's famously chameleon-like vocal style, which unwittingly takes on the characteristics of the singer he's standing closest to. (Seriously: listen to "My Baby Grand," his duet with Ray Charles, and you can hear him strain to avoid aping Ray's singing style.)
Watching the show, one didn't get the impression that the two men are especially good friends or even great admirers of each other's work. While the "Face to Face" portion of the evening was enjoyable enough, both performers came alive (to varying degrees) during their solo sets.
Dressed in a royal blue shirt and a long black topcoat bedazzled with a caricature of his Captain Fantastic alter-ego, Elton John looked like what you think Elton John should look like ca. 2009: spiky blond hair, pink-shaded spectacles, attire that is at once classic and overly sequined. After Joel had left the stage and his piano had descended to the bowels of the stage, John and his five-piece band launched into "Funeral for a Friend," the proggy overture to "Love Lies Bleeding," one of several album tracks he played during his eleven-song solo set.
In my preview to last night's show, I wrote that both Billy and Elton began their careers by writing "overly long" rock songs, but even I was surprised at how long Elton's songs dragged on, especially during the first part of the set. Every song was treated to an extended coda to allow for solos, which would have been fine if either Elton or his guitarist did much worthwhile with the space. Elton is still a hell of a piano player -- his barrelhouse style is more technically adept that Joel's in any case -- but the enthusiasm waned during songs like "Burn Down the Mission" and "Madman Across the Water."
That all changed when "Tiny Dancer" kicked in; from there, it was a greatest-hits sing-a-long. The group-sing portion of the night gave one a chance to hear the actual lyrics of the song, because, God love him, Elton John enunciates like an overbite patient with a new set of dentures. Perhaps in his later years Elton studied at the Van Morrison School of Spit-Singing; perhaps he's forgotten the words and coasts solely on phonics. Either way, it was nearly impossible to parse his words if you didn't already know the song. Observe, using a sample lyric from "Levon":
Original lyric: "And he shall be Levon, and he shall be a good man."
Live translation: "Dan sho' be LEE-fawn, dan sho' be uh GOOT fan."
Of course, who needs clear singing when songs like the beautiful "Daniel" are seared on our souls?
Elton mostly refrained from between-song banter and stuck to the tunes, but Billy Joel more than made up for it. Taking many opportunities to talk to the people of "St. Louie," Joel used his schlubby, Long Island everyman persona to his advantage during his career-spanning set. As he has for many tours, Joel began his set with "Prelude / Angry Young Man," a lightning-fingered warm-up that found the band shifting tempos a bit clumsily.
The band hit the groove with "Movin' Out," a golden-era Joel song in which his horn section and two guitarists taking center stage for the song's final instrumental hook. Joel's band appears to be identical to the one he brought to Scottrade about two years ago, and the song selection was understandably pared down to highlight the hits and appease the non-die hards. Still, it was a treat to hear "Zanzibar," a deep cut from 1978's excellent 52nd Street; the flugelhorn player even nailed Freddie Hubbard's solo from the original recording.
Perhaps it's my cross to bear as a Billy Joel Apologist, but I have to wonder why he continues to trot out "River of Dreams" in concert. But he did, followed quickly by "We Didn't Start the Fire," the only other late-period song that was played last night. Joel finished his set with "Only the Good Die Young" before Elton came back for a nine-song encore with Joel. The pair played their most pop-ready songs (Elton's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," Joel's "Uptown Girl") and had fun with a couple White Album Beatles songs, "Birthday" and a fun run through "Back in the USSR."
And then, after their band mates had left the stage, it was time for the marquee songs. Elton finished with "Candle in the Wind" (not the Princess Diana version), while Joel strapped on a harmonica for "Piano Man." It was the only possible way to end the show, as the piano men sang the refrain to each other before turning up the house lights and letting the audience sing it to the performers themselves. An ego-stroke, sure, but after 3-and-a-half hours and 35 songs, they had earned the applause.
-- The stage had no back-drop, so patrons were seated all throughout the Scottrade Center. Joel's piano platform rotated to give all show-goers an equal view of his goateed mug.
-- In reference to the seating arrangement, Joel joked that the people in the nosebleeds were seated in "Jefferson City." The dude knows his state capitols!
-- St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster and personal hero Mike Shannon sat right behind me. He remained magnanimous (and drank a cold frosty one) as an usher booted some squatters from his seat, but he appears to have bolted sometime during Elton's set. God, what I wouldn't have given to have heard his color commentary during that show.
-- During "We Didn't Start the Fire," images of the song's lyrics played on the video screen (you know, "Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray"). When he got to the lyric "England's got a new queen," a picture of Elton John appeared. Hilarious.
Billy Joel and Elton John: "Your Song" "Just the Way You Are" "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" "My Life"
Elton John: "Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding" "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" "Burn Down the Mission" "Madman Across the Water" "Tiny Dancer" "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" "Daniel" "Rocket Man" "Levon" "I'm Still Standing" "Crocodile Rock"
Billy Joel: "Prelude / Angry Young Man" "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)" "Allentown" "Zanzibar" "Don't Ask Me Why" "She's Always a Woman" "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" "River of Dreams" "We Didn't Start the Fire" "It's Still Rock & Roll to Me" "Only the Good Die Young"
Billy Joel and Elton John: "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" "Uptown Girl" "The Bitch is Back" "You May Be Right" "Bennie and the Jets" "Birthday" / "Back in the USSR" (the Beatles) "Candle in the Wind" "Piano Man"
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