Let's face it - an Elton John/Billy Joel duo show is critic proof. And as the guy sitting next to me - Dandy Andy Dansby of the Houston Chronicle - said, it's also apparently recession proof. Every ticket in the Toyota Center from the front row mortgage-costing gold seats to the SRO nosebleeds near Mars was sold out.
And while the 59-year-old Billy and 61-year-old Elton came out like fighters - Joel to the strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and John to "God Save the Queen," neither threw any unexpected punches during the generous 3 ½ hour show. And you know what? That was just fine.
Almost every one of the 35 numbers played (save a couple of ones Joel announced "we used to call album cuts") were massive record hits and FM staples, triggering unembarrassed crowd singalongs. Any hipster sullenly bemoaning that the only radio they like involves Thom Yorke would have been pummeled in a maelstrom of suburban fists of fury.
Structured like their previous "Face to Face" tours, the pair opened with a dual set, trading off lines on each other's numbers and trotting out with ballads/wedding reception standards "Your Song" and "Just the Way You Are" early on. The highlight was a spirited "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me."
Fashionista note: Joel's dark business suit and red tie could place him in the Bada Bing's backroom on "The Sopranos," while John's long, colorfully embroidered coast with blue tails seemed to have sprung from some Moroccan castle's closet.
For Elton's set, he ballsily opened with "Funeral for a Friend," the long, elegant intro still evocative after all these years, with longtime band members Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Nigel Olsson (drums) anchoring the swirling lament. Greatest Hits favorites "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," "Tiny Dancer," and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" tumbled out, played expertly, albeit with an at times roteness. Not that Dandy Andy and wife Darling Nikki - admitted Elton preferrers - seemed to mind at all.
Sir Elton punched things up closer to the end with "Rocket Man" (featuring an extended, jamming coda) and a more rock-oriented arrangement of "Levon," normally not one of my favorite numbers, but it took on a new life here. "I'm Still Standing" was a rare dip into the '80s though - like Joel's "Allentown" - the images of excessively oiled and limber young men from the videos kept running through my mind and ruined both tunes. And I'm not gay (as Mrs. Classic Rock Bob will attest). Not that there's anything wrong with that. Set closer "Crocodile Rock" had thousands singing along the Elmo-on-amphetamines chorus.
Then it was Joel's turn at the stool. Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of the Bard of Long Island. I have bootlegs. I know the name of his wife (no, not the ex-supermodel and not the one almost young enough to be his daughter, the first one). And my first ever concert was 1984's Innocent Man tour at the Summit. But dammit, those rapid-fire opening notes of "Prelude/Angry Young Man" still get the blood pressure moving.
Billy has always been a natural raconteur, peppering his set with jokes, stories, and local references - so he was by far the warmer performer, giving props to the nosebleed sections ("How are those seats over there in Denton?"), those sitting behind his shiny pate ("You're gonna get a lot of head tonight!") and a spinning a yarn about checking out some oil wells near San Angelo he'd bought as investments (Where traveling "just down the road a' pei" was 100 miles). His piano also spun, giving equal face time to most sections. There was also a twirling microphone involved.
With longtime backing band members Mark Rivera (sax) and Crystal Taliaferro (percussion, horns), he energetically plowed through material from the Holy Trinity of The Stranger/52nd Street/Glass Houses ("Movin' Out," "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," "Only the Good Die Young." Diehards got the deep cut "Zanzibar" complete with tasty flugelhorn solo. The gospel-tinged "River of Dreams" also stood out. And though it was a huge hit with the audience, even I can't defend the speed history lesson of "We Didn't Start the Fire" - though one had to laugh when a huge picture of Elton showed up on the screen during the line "England's got a new queen."
And then it was time for the closing set, which mirrored the first, with a full contingent united 13-piece backing band and 176 black and white keys pumping out "Uptown Girl," "The Bitch is Back," "You May Be Right," and a couple of Beatles covers.
Naturally, the two closed with "Piano Man," the stage just left with the pair of headliners facing each other over their instruments as they swapped observations of politically-savvy waitresses, career military men, and failed novelists. Yes, the song has become corny and a punchline, but it is simply impossible not to sway to the chorus. Even Dandy Andy - egged on by his wife and I - managed a very slight left-and-right body movement. No one can resist the Power of Piano Man!
In a contemporary music world where "crowd pleasing" can sometimes be an insult and stale jokes about soccer moms in the audience and expanding waistlines of Dino-Rockers are commonplace, there is something incredibly comforting in just enjoying a show and watching two popular performers, free of irony.
Joel's Italian restaurant-meeting couple Brenda and Eddie may never get to go back to the green again, But last night, they at least got to disappear into their yearbooks for a little while.
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Set List: (Elton & Billy together) Your Song Just the Way You Are Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me Yellow Rose of Texas (snippet) My Life
(Elton alone) Funeral for a Friend 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 alone) 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 Deep in the Heart of Texas (snippet) We Didn't Start the Fire It's Still Rock and Roll to Me Only the Good Die Young
(Elton & Billy) I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues Uptown Girl The Bitch is Back You May Be Right Bennie & The Jets Birthday Back in the USSR Candle in the Wind Piano Man