Elton John and Billy Joel Toronto May 30 2009

Hey I tried my best to take a good picture of the two piano men.
I tried my best to take a good picture of the two piano men.

Elton John and Billy Joel brought there Face 2 Face tour to the Air Canada Centre last night, and as a piano playing fan I am happy to report that the experience was well worth the small fortune I paid for tickets.

I should point out, since I was whining so much about the price, that there actually were $70.00 seats behind the stage. These were actually good seats with a clear view of the stage. Probably better than the tickets I purchased. But I thought the view would be blocked. Wrong!

The main thing that kept me interested in playing the piano in my early teens were these two guys, and although I have seen Billy Joel before (in the late 80s) I have never seen Elton John – despite numerous times I could have seen him. But for one reason or another the chance has always slipped through my fingers. It was well worth the wait (and the dough) especially since they both put on a full-length show.

We were treated to three and a half hours and a total of about 36 songs. The show started with two grand pianos rising out of the stage. Then the lights went down and when they came back up they were both seated and playing Your Song; Elton John’s first hit. You can see how much these two enjoy playing together trading off verses in each others songs and matching each other note for note.

The next song was Joel’s Just the Way You Are. A light slowly comes up on his sax player and then the band slowly enters. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me brought to realization the full power of the two bands. And they kicked into a higher gear with My Life from Billy Joel’s 52nd Street (my fave Billy Joel album).

At that point Billy Joel leaves the stage. Just before the concert my wife had been asking me which songs I hoped they would play that aren’t really famous. For Elton John one of the songs I mentioned was Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, the 11 minute opening from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. And that was what he played right off the top of his set. He even extended it. I couldn’t believe it.

After that he played hit after hit after hit. Daniel, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tiny Dancer and Burn Down the Mission. The other keyboardist was using four different synthesizers and he provided the early 70s moog sounds and orchestral accompaniment. I have to say the sound quality was spectacular. The low bass sounds coming off of the synth and the bass player were very clear and deep and added a rumbling dimension to John’s music you just can’t get from an MP3 player.

His voice is still strong although he has rearranged some of his vocals so that he is singing the harmonies and the back up singers cover the high falsetto parts. During Crocodile Rock he gets the audience to cover the high notes. This guy has so many hits that he couldn’t possibly play all of my favourites and so I missed not hearing Someone Saved My Life Tonight or This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore. He had the audience on their feet with I’m Still Standin’ and Saturday Nights Alright For Fightin’. I know that both of these guys are considered balladeers by most people but both are quite exceptional rock ‘n rollers. Remember Elton John’s band has actually played with John Lennon. So you have to give credit where credit is due.
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Billy Joel’s half was definitely the harder rock section of the show, and he is not given enough credit for his abilities as a rocker (this is a bias against piano players). He was much more conversational that Elton. Although Elton did mention how his marriage makes him Canadian. But Joel seems to enjoy being a stand-up comedian in between songs. He even made some dirty jokes and swore a few times. He is much more of a regular guy. It’s interesting because their music is so similar but they have such vastly different personalities. Joel has more of a Bruce Springsteen working class vibe. Whereas Elton John performs with Mary J Blige and Prince on occasion and I can’t picture those two artists playing with Joel.

He started out – surprisingly – with a song called Prelude/Angry Young Man from his little known Turnstiles album. I love this song and just bought it recently on iTunes but was completely surprised to hear it. Although, it does match the Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding intro of Elton John’s half of the show. Both have an instrumental beginning which shows off their finger skills, which then lead into regular pop songs.

I was also surprised that he played Zanzibar, an album track (as he described it) from 52nd Street. Complete with the flugelhorn jazz breaks, this is one of my favourite songs by Billy Joel. One of the musicians made a mistake during this song and then afterward he pointed out how they “Fuck up live” and that’s how the audience knows they aren’t using recordings. I had also mentioned how I’d love to hear Scenes From an Italian Restaurant and I screamed when they played it, even though the rest of the audience did not react at all to the beginning of it. I felt so alone.

The one thing that bothered me about the audience was they all jumped up for two of my least favourite songs by Billy Joel: We Didn’t Start the Fire and The River of Dreams. My wife and I just sat in our seats for We Didn’t Start the Fire, although I was amused to see that in the series of images on the screen they used Elton John for the line “England’s got a new Queen”.

So the audience was lame. It was mostly people older than me, and they were very conservative but there was also a youthful element to the audience and even some families. For those that love Billy Joel’s hits he did not disappoint. He played Allentown, It’ Still Rock ‘n Roll To Me, Don’t Ask Me Why and She’s Always a Woman. His voice is still incredibly strong.

As if this wasn’t enough, Elton John then comes out again and they play even more fucking songs. Amazing! Bennie and the Jets was played, of course, which led into a long keyboard dual. The Bitch is Back and You May Be Right brought the show to a climax. Then, to show what the common influence over their music is, they play Birthday and Back in the U.S.S.R. by The Beatles.

After this, the bands leave and the two are again facing each other alone for the end of the show. First they play Candle in the Wind (the Norma Jean version thank God) and then the show ends, of course, with Piano Man – Billy Joel’s first hit. This echoes the beginning of the show with Elton John’s first hit. Both men seem very comfortable with each other and their established and respected place in the music world. They are both geniuses as far as I’m concerned.

For someone who has all of their records it just seemed like never ending fun. I always have too much of a good time at these kinds of shows. The seat is too small for me and I end up screaming and dancing and singing to the annoyance of people around me.

All the more reason for me to finally get back on the piano.IMG_0099

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