In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I'm a big fan of both Elton John and Billy Joel.
So, naturally, there was no question that I'd be anywhere but Nationals Park in Washington last night to see the two piano rock 'n' rollers play "Face to Face." The guys have perfected this "F2F" gig, having played these "in tandem" concerts off and on since 1994.
Oh, what a night it was: a rocking, drama-filled evening with two music legends. The concert began much like the piano guys' past shows.
As the opening theme music boomed throughout the open-air baseball stadium, the two grand pianos emerged from underground, raising up to stage level and laying out 18 feet of pure piano. Soon after, Billy emerged, then Elton. A warm hug, kindly greetings to the capacity crowd, and they were on their way ...
The boys opened with "Your Song," with Billy starting the verses. An appropriate opener indeed. Next came "Just the Way You Are," which Elton kicked off. But not long into the song, Elton stopped playing the piano ... a curious and worrisome sight to any who've seen Elton in concert. It was clear that something was wrong.
Elton dove into the next number, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." But just a couple measures in he abruptly stopped the song. Turned out there were technical difficulties: The sustain pedal on his piano was sticking. Not good. Elton was growing increasingly upset. And Billy tried to calm the situation. He even whipped his suit jacket off and got down on his back under Elton's piano to help what looked like four technicians frantically trying to fix the glitch.
It didn't quite work. But Billy tried. And he quickly ran over to his own piano to play some "filler" music -- "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," to the delight of the crowd. Billy's cute quips calmed the tension a bit. He said at one point: "This is an authentic rock-and-roll [screw-up]! At least you know it's not on tape!"
The piano guys decided to shelve their normal format of performing a few songs together at the beginning, and rather just let Billy go ahead and do his set, which was clear to see was not the original plan. Elton was supposed to do his set first this night. But Billy pulled it off like a pro, and after Elton departed the stage while his piano was being lowered underground and operated on,
Billy dove headfirst into "Angry Young Man." And went full-steam ahead: "Movin' Out," "Allentown," "Zanzibar" (a terrific treat), "Don't Ask Me Why," "She's Always a Woman" (with some cute comments about his current divorce -- No. 3, it is) and then the masterful "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," followed by "River of Dreams," "We Didn't Start the Fire" (with cute visual of Elton on the display screen during the lyric "England's got a new queen"), "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" (with Elvis gyrations) and "Only the Good Die Young."
Throughout Billy's set, the crowd was engaged and clearly having a grand time with an old friend. The words, everyone knew. The melodies, everyone adored. Billy was still relevant to this crowd, which spanned the ages. Billy, despite his fame and fortune, is an everyman. The easy-going way, the observational sense of humor, he's the guy next door (who also happens to be ridiculously talented, rich and famous).
After Billy wrapped "Only the Good Die Young," he departed the stage, ending his solo portion of the show. Elton's recuperating piano was soon elevated to stage level again, and the crowd held its collective breath that the piano's surgery was a success. And it was. The haunting intro to "Funeral for a Friend" began, and Elton soon emerged with warm waves to the crowd. As he ventured into his piano intro in the song, it appeared there were still a few (new) issues. But he played through the dreamy song, which morphs so brilliantly and wonderfully into "Love Lies Bleeding."
Elton rolled into the rollicking "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and because of the sound issues he was still detecting, his tech quickly resolved things with a couple quick switcheroos of equipment. (Whew!) After "Saturday," Elton, to the crowd, explained the earlier pedal problem and how the notes had been running together. He then thanked Billy and his band for coming to his rescue and playing his set out of order.
Elton barrelled into "Burn Down the Mission," then played an extended version of "Madman Across the Water," which I got the feeling most of the crowd didn't know very well (shame, shame). Next, he played the crowd-pleasing "Tiny Dancer," and then the melancholy "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which, I admit, is my favorite tune. Elton can't sing the falsetto in the chorus any longer, but makes up for it by having his band sing those parts, while he harmonizes in his lower register. Nice. Very, very nice.
Afterward, Elton stayed in the early '70s with "Daniel" and then a super-extended (14-minute!) version of "Rocket Man," which the crowd seemed to eat up. While not one of my favorite tunes, "Rocket Man" featured several new, beautiful and inventive piano licks.
"Philadelphia Freedom" was next, as everyone, including two ushers, bopped and sang along. Elton was in his groove. He then slid into the percussive "I'm Still Standing" (a brief venture, this evening, into the '80s), then the rousing, playful "Crocodile Rock," which included requisite sing-along. The crowd was fully engaged. And just in time for Billy's re-emergence.
The two men could now pick up where they left off earlier in the night -- with "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." They shared the singing and shared the piano-playing for the rest of the show. The duo ventured into a spirited version of "My Life," with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as intro. Then went for "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "The Bitch Is Back," "You May Be Right" (with Billy "smashing" his sweat-filled towel against his piano to the sound of the breaking glass at the beginning of the song) and "Bennie and the Jets" (quite the crowd favorite).
The fellows slowed it down with "Candle in the Wind" (which they swapped vocals on) and finally, of course, "Piano Man." One sweet note: If I'm not mistaken, I could swear that the crowd (and the guys themselves) sang the words "Sing us a song, you're the Piano Men." Very sweet. Very true. And that they both did.
(Photo by Diane Williams)