In 1994, when Billy Joel and Elton John first took the stage together in Philadelphia, it was quite a novelty. Two piano-playing singer-songwriters -- who've each sold more than 100 million records on their own -- together in concert! Wowza!
Five tours and 15 years later, the newness is gone. Last night's Face 2 Face Tour stop at U.S. Airways Arena was nothing if not predictable, from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" playing as Joel took the stage through the awkward hugs after the closer, "Piano Man." Still, the chance to see two men who've combined to record 80-plus top 40 singles share a stage is enough to sell out any arena, with good reason. And, for John and Joel, the chance to take another spin around the country as part of what music industry magazine Billboard has called the most successful tour pairing of all time makes a lot of sense. It's what they call a win-win. So, far be it from me to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, but I was a little let down.
It's not that Face 2 Face was in any way bad: Both John and Joel are consummate professionals who've got a combined catalog anyone other than The Beatles would envy. The show featured all the hits (full set list below) in an appropriate order, played relatively enthusiastically. But, with two talents on this level, backed by a 13-piece band, I'd expect to see an extra special and totally unique moment every single night, and we didn't get that in Phoenix.
First, their choice of covers was bad. Elton's birthday was March 25, so after making a couple jokes about his birthday having been the day before they proceeded to cover the Beatles' version of "Happy Birthday." I dunno, maybe they learned the song to play here, but it felt about as enthusiastic as the rendition Applebee's waitresses do. They followed that up with a cover of "Back in the U.S.S.R." I wouldn't want the men to freak out anyone in the aged (seriously aged) crowd, but I thought Beatles songs were about as uninspired as they could get. Why not break out something a little fresher? Maybe even (gulp) a Coldplay song? Old people love Coldplay!
Second, there was very little done to update the sound of some of their hits from the synthesizer era. "Just The Way You Are," the second song of the night, was a prime example. It's a gorgeous ballad, but the Jefferson Starship synths at the beginning of the song sound ridiculous to a contemporary ear, and the saxophone solo is straight-up elevator jazz. "I'm Still Standing" fell in to the same trap, substituting a cheesy little guitar solo for the saxophone. It ended up sounding a lot like the video looks. Surely these songs could have been updated a bit for this, their fifth tour together.
Third, John's setlist could use some work. Joel was pretty solid in all his choices, even the deep cuts, but John's set really bogged down when he played three songs off his mediocre 1971 album Madman Across the Water, which has "Tiny Dancer" and not much else. Then he played "Burn Down the Mission" off his 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection, a record that's best known for going gold without a single. The extended version had him hitting every key on the piano at least a dozen times, while I checked my watch. "Crocodile Rock" got the biggest reaction of any of the songs the men played solo, though, even without a duck suit.
Billy, on the other hand, kept his set compact (sadly, no "Captain Jack," which I would have gladly spent eight minutes watching) and filled the space between songs with jokes about the cheap seats being in Flagstaff and lighting techs who have to pee but are trapped above the stage until after the show. His material felt fresher, especially "Zanzibar," which had a great jazz trumpet solo in it.
Still, as solid as Joel was, this tour isn't about him, it's about the two piano men on stage together. The Face 2 Face concept is no longer new, but, with a little more work from Joel and John, it could have had some novelty. If the men come around a sixth time, hopefully they'll freshen it up. As it stands, though, I'd prefer a night at the Big Bang, the dueling piano bar on Mill Avenue. Sure, you're not seeing two of the world's greatest singer-songwriters, but you are guaranteed to see something unscripted, unexpected and unique -- for me, that's crucial, no matter who's on stage.
Last Night: Billy Joel and Elton John Face 2 Face at U.S. Airways Arena
Better Than: Well, at least you didn't have to give them a dollar with your requests, as you would at Big Bang. Not that they took requests, of course, otherwise I'd have tossed up a $20 and a napkin that said "Captain Jack" on it.
Personal Bias: Apparently I like Billy Joel a lot more than Elton John. I would have said they were about even in my book before tonight.
Random Detail: Did anyone else notice how a picture of John flashed on the screen when Joel sang "England's got a new queen..." in "We Didn't Start the Fire."
Further Listening: Elton John wasn't always as stodgy as he was last night. In fact, as a hip young piano man he really seemed to do a lot with a little, as in this live version of "Crocodile Rock."
By The Way: Follow my twitter, where I'm starting to do some live updates from show's I'm seeing. twitter.com/martincizmar
Billy and Elton:
"Just the Way You Are"
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"
"Love Lies Bleeding"
"Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)"
"Burn Down The Mission"
"Madman Across The Water"
"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"
"I'm Still Standing"
"Angry Young Man"
"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"
"Don't Ask Me Why"
"She's Always A Woman To Me"
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"
"River of Dreams"
"We Didn't Start The Fire"
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"
"Only The Good Die Young"
Billy and Elton:
"I Guess that's Why They Call it the Blues"
"The Bitch Is Back"
"You Might Be Right"
"Benny and the Jets"
"Birthday" (Beatles cover)
"Back in the U.S.S.R." (Beatles cover
"Candle in the Wind"