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Concert Reviews:
Piano Men Pound Out The Hits At The Palace

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009

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AUBURN HILLS -- Elton John still has his flamboyant fashions. Billy Joel is still a wisecracking smart aleck who, even at 60, likes to slip in a semi-dirty joke.

But when the two get together, as they have for their latest Face To Face Tour, it's all about the songs. And on Thursday night (May 21), playing before a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 at the Palace, Joel and John had enough of those to fill three and a half hours with a hit parade that would have made Casey Kasem's eyes spin.

It's been an effective pairing since 1994, when the two piano men started their periodic joint tours. Besides their individual 88-key virtuosity, each draws from classic pop conventions that date back well before rock 'n' roll. That brings an element of class and sophistication to each of their repertoires, but that doesn't mean they can't kick out the jams, too, on their own or together.

So Thursday's show had an overwhelmingly upbeat tone, even if it started on a mellow tip with Joel and John entering the stage from opposite sides, then saluting and bowing to each other before trading verses on John's "Your Song" and Joel's "Just the Way You Are," the latter with saxophonist Mark Rivera. Various members of each artist's bands came on stage for John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" and Joel's "My Life."

Nostalgia was, of course, the theme of the night. None of the 34 songs the duo performed, separately and together, were released later than 1993 -- when, in fact, Joel stopped writing pop songs in favor of instrumental and classical compositions. But it's safe to say that few at the Palace was pining for something from, say, latter-day John albums like "The Big Picture" and "Peachtree Road," and they were clearly -- and audibly -- happy to be treated to tightly played vintage John favorites such as "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," "Daniel," "Tiny Dancer," "I'm Still Standing" and "Crocodile Rock" as well as epic renditions of "Burn Down the Mission," "Madman Across the Water" and "Levon."

John also dedicated "Rocket Man" to Detroit rapper Eminem, who was in the crowd with his manager, Paul Rosenberg. John -- who became friends with Eminem after defending him from charges of sexism and homophobia in 2000 -- refereed to him as "one of the most brilliant artists of our time" and added that "I'm very proud of you" for going through successful rehab for substance addictions. In recent interviews, Eminem has said that he turned to John for support and advice while he was going through rehab.

Joel's set, meanwhile, was a bit looser and scruffier, marked by teasing comments to fans seated behind the stage and in the rear upper deck and made note of the fact his "ex (wife) No. 2" (Christie Brinkley) hailed from Michigan (Monroe). He also poked fun at his physical appearance -- "I'm not actually Billy Joel. I'm Billy's dad..." -- and got away from the piano to play guitar for "We Didn't Start the Fire" and twirl the microphone stand during "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." He and his eight-piece band also broke into a bit of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" during "River of Dreams," and his flying-fingers solos during "Prelude ("Prelude/Angry Young Man" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" were typically dazzling.

All that was well and good, of course, but what everyone came for was the 45-minute closing portion of the show, during which Joel, John and both of their bands -- 16 musicians in all, including former Detroiter Bob Birch on bass in John's band and Flint guitarist Dennis Delguadio in Joel's -- hammered through Joel's "Uptown Girl" and "You May Be Right" and John's "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues" and "The Bitch is Back." The two traded piano solos during "Benny and the Jets," tossing bits of standards such as "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "The Sound of Music's" "Do-Re-Mi" at each other, before vamping through the Beatles' "Birthday" and "Back in the U.S.S.R." and closing, just the two of them, with John's "Candle in the Wind" and Joel's "Piano Man."

"You've been a pretty good crowd for a Thursday night," John sang during the latter, but he and Joel could rest assured those fans thought the piano men were pretty good, too -- and then some.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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