Elton John & Billy Joel
at Gillette Stadium,
Foxborough, Massachusetts
(18 July 2009)

The first time I saw Billy Joel in concert, he had a full head of hair. I was a junior in college, and he performed at our small campus in northwestern Pennsylvania. We knew "Piano Man" and "The Entertainer," for sure. Some folks who owned the Piano Man album could sing along with "Captain Jack." But when Billy offered up "Just the Way You Are," it was a brand-new song to us. It was nice enough, and it fit the style of popular music at the time. We had no way of predicting how far Billy's stardom would go.

The first time I saw Elton John in concert, he started the show beneath the stage. He and his piano rose up to our level and climbed even higher as he played and sang "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." I cried. After more than 20 years of loving his songs, I was finally getting a chance to see him in person. I was sitting on the lawn at the outdoor Star-Lake Amphitheater (now Post-Gazette Pavilion), west of Pittsburgh. While I was being mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Captain Fantastic, the two women sitting next to me passed over the tiniest of joints. I turned it down. They both giggled into hysterics when they subsequently dropped it into the thicket of grass (!) and hay we were sitting on. They never did find it. Funny, the things you remember.

The first time I saw Elton and Billy together in concert, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris was also with us. Well, not with us, but at least in the same house. We were in his house, after all: Three Rivers Stadium. Before the show started, he walked through the crowd like a modern-day Greek god, startling unsuspecting fans and laughing at them when they jumped back and gasped with recognition. The place was filled with the red, white and blue bunting of both the Union Jack and the Stars & Stripes. How had we not previously noticed the symmetry in the names on the banners? Elton John, Billy Joel. Five letters and then four, some of them the same. And how had we not previously noticed that their vocal ranges were similar, even while their styles and voices were still distinctive and unique? Pairing these piano men seemed like the perfect combination: something someone should have thought of, long before.

That first tour together was 15 years ago, in 1994. Because the Disney movie The Lion King had just been released, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was one of the big, emotional hits of the evening. Since then, both men have toured separately and extensively and have produced additional music. They joined forces again in 2001, when I caught them at the Allstate Arena (the former Rosemont Horizon) outside of Chicago. To date, I've seen each one of them in concert three times individually. This gig at Gillette makes the third time I've seen them together.

But well before I followed their tour schedules, I bought the books. Piano books. I'd been playing piano since kindergarten age, and by early adulthood I longed to play like Elton or Billy, or both. I sat myself down at the living room upright, put some albums on the old stereo, opened the pages to the corresponding song manuscripts and pretended to be them as I accompanied their recordings. "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and "Just the Way You Are" were easy enough to both sing and play. I could even hook up a harmonica in a neck brace and offer a decent "Piano Man." But how could anyone figure out the rhythm each hand had to sustain in "Honky Cat"? How could a mere mortal achieve that tumbling finger roll trill on middle C for the prelude to "Angry Young Man"?

So, yes, after all these years and after everything these two performers have meant to me: I planned on spending more than $100 for the ticket, $40 for parking and uncharted millions to fill up the gas tank, in order to see and hear music that, for the most part, I knew by heart and could almost duplicate for myself (but then again, not really). Was it worth the effort and worth every penny? You betcha.

The shadowy images that edged the set reflected the origins of both musicians, with London Bridge on the left-hand side and the Empire State Building on the right. Sir Elton's influence was revealed immediately when two grand pianos rose up to fill the empty stage, just before the men themselves arrived. Billy strode out from the right, dressed in a nondescript gray suit, black shirt and blue tie. Elton walked out from the left in an embroidered black suit coat with long tails, a white tuxedo shirt and white bucks. We could later see that the colorful stitching on the back of his jacket was a depiction of a yellow-brick road, while musical notes flowed down his right arm. The men sat facing each other to sing and play the opening four-song set, beginning with their own first Top Ten hits: "Your Song" (1970) and "Just the Way You Are" (1977). They took turns singing all of the verses. When Billy got to the line "I said I love you and that's forever," he lifted his left hand above the piano and wiggled it back and forth in "not-so-much" fashion. After all, he'd written that song for his first wife and now was unfortunately headed for his third divorce. Elton responded with a sympathetic "whadya-gonna-do" shoulder shrug as the song continued. Billy's long-time sax player Richie Cannata offered the familiar instrumental interlude to the tune. The evening was already a trip to the past, and it was just getting started.

With "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," a nine-piece band materialized from beneath the stage. Most of musicians were evidently associated with Elton. As the glowing orb indeed began to drift below the far edge of the stadium, Billy led the group in a spirited instrumental version of Beethoven's "Song of Joy," which easily segued into his own "My Life." At the end of the song Billy left the stage, and even his piano disappeared out of sight.

That was the cue for Elton and his band to take over. For the better part of an hour, they sifted through some of the best selections from his catalogue. They began with "Funeral for a Friend," the eerie prologue that led to "Love Lies Bleeding." Audience participation was encouraged for "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," ("Saturday! Saturday! Saturday night's all right!") especially appropriate because it was a Saturday night. It was followed by "Levon," one of my personal favorites. Elton spoke to us only occasionally between songs. But he made a point of saying that he was a New England Patriots fan and that he would be in England to see them play there in August. Naturally this news was met with resounding cheers and applause.

Going to such concerts these days can pose a quandary. We want the music to be the same as we know it, just as it appears on the albums/CDs that we've played so often that we've internalized the lyrics. At the same time, we want the music to be somewhat different in person, something special, so that we can say, "Well, when I saw him in concert, he played it this way." Both piano men delivered on these counts this evening. Many of the songs were longer and more musically interesting. Some were offered with different instrumentation or with slightly different pacing than we were used to. "Madman Across the Water" had a wonderful acoustic guitar component that I had never really noticed much before. "Tiny Dancer" was another chance to sing along, reminiscent of the bus scene in the movie Almost Famous. Elton can't hit the high notes anymore, but that doesn't matter. We filled them in for him. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Daniel" took us back to the good old school days of the 1970s. "Rocket Man" again featured the acoustic guitarist and was a bit jazzier than the original. "Philadelphia Freedom" was quite punchy and very danceable.

"I'm Still Standing" was an affirmation of the songwriter's endurance: "I'm still standing better than I ever did / Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid / I'm still standing after all this time." Many members of the audience could relate to that statement. "Crocodile Rock" brought everyone to their feet and willing to sing/shout out the "Na, na na na na nas" of the chorus. It's easy to get a standing ovation when folks are already there. And on that note and with a wave, Elton and his band left the stage.

Billy and his guys returned as his piano re-surfaced. He immediately pounced on the keyboard and pounded on that middle C for the prelude to "Angry Young Man." The crowd literally roared its approval. I was mesmerized. It doesn't seem like a tricky thing to do, but just try it yourself sometime! And the subsequent lyrics turned out to be suddenly just as age-appropriate as Elton's were: "I believe I've passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage / I found that just surviving was a noble fight." Next, a small brass section showed up for "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song). Billy as usual chatted more between the songs than Elton did. Tonight he was also preoccupied with the bugs that were flying around the stage. He kept a yellow fly swatter on the top of his piano and took swings at the enemy at random, even while playing. "Allentown" hit close to home for me because most of my relatives are from Lehigh County. And even though people objected to that song when it came out in 1982, I've always thought that was because the story it told was all too true. "Zanzibar," the jazzy number that Billy described as "an album cut," featured trumpeter Carl Fisher. Then Billy employed one of his favorite stage tactics as his piano spun slowly around on a turntable, allowing face-to-face contact with the right-hand side of the stadium audience. During "Don't Ask Me Why," he proved that he could not only wield the fly swatter in battle, he could also twirl the thing.

Billy Joel seemed to be in an odd mood this evening. Whether he was experiencing personal or professional stress, or simply the unease of being a diehard Yankee fan perched in the midst of Red Sox Nation, he appeared to not be having the best time of his life. Oh, he still provided a stellar performance, consummate musician that he is. But a haughty, standoffish attitude seemed to surround him. That was something I'd not seen in previous encounters. And at times when he stood up to talk, his fingers pulled nervously at his jacket and at each other -- even at the ring that was now missing from his left hand. Perhaps no one else in attendance noticed anything like that. But I was momentarily concerned for the guy, seeing him in that state. We can only hope that he has an easy time resolving whatever challenges he may face.

We all got to sing along with the quiet melody of "She's Always a Woman," tens of thousands of voices raised together in song. It was chilling and terrific to hear. And of course we continued our participation with "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." I still get goose bumps, recalling the glorious sound. "A bottle of red, a bottle of white / It all depends upon your appetite / I'll meet you anytime you want / In our Italian restaurant." And Richie Cannata was back with his sax, of course. "River of Dreams" was a great song to bounce around to in the aisles. And in the middle of it, the band stopped to throw in their version of the old Standells classic, "Dirty Water." The crowd went wild again, shout-singing "'Cause I love that dirty water / Oh, Boston you're my home!" The quintessential New Yorker had done the unthinkable by offering up the Fenway Park victory song. What a treat!

"We Didn't Start the Fire" came complete with corresponding slideshow on the video screens, as Billy played the guitar. Many folks tried to keep up with his historical chronology of American protest. He remained at center stage for "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me." Those who had never seen Billy in concert before were no doubt intrigued by the mike-stand antics that he always features in that tune. Twirling, rocking, throwing and catching. It should be an Olympic event. And now that we were truly in pop-bop mode, it was time for "Only the Good Die Young." The brass section was featured again as we all sang along with the catchy lyrics. "And they say there's a heaven for those who wait / And some say it's better, but I say it ain't / I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / The sinners are much more fun / Darlin', only the good die young. Thus closed Billy's solo set for the evening.

Elton and his band returned to join the other musicians already on stage. Elton had changed into another black embroidered suit coat with tails, but it was difficult to catch what the design depicted. His bassist was now wearing a Tom Brady jersey. No doubt someone upstairs had sent one to the dressing room after Elton said he was a Patriots fan. And of course, he wouldn't wear such a thing. At least, not in public and not at this point in his career. He'd been knighted by the Queen, for heaven's sakes.

The concluding set for the full ensemble included "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "Uptown Girl," "The Bitch is Back" and "You May Be Right." The headliners played tag during an expanded version of "Bennie & the Jets," throwing snippets of other songs into the expanded chorus: anything from "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It's something that Elton's been doing in concert for a number of years; the fun was doubled with another talented dabbler sitting across the way. Their efforts generated much applause. All of the accompanists waved goodbye as they and their platforms lowered out of sight.

The concert ended in the only way it could: with the signature songs "Candle in the Wind" and "Piano Man." Two men, two pianos and thousands of voices singing the emotional, familiar lyrics. Hundreds of ignited cell phones -- the successors to the old Bic lighters -- polka-dotted the masses, memorializing both Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. And we honored both of the songwriters as we swayed back and forth and sang every chorus, "Sing us a song, you're the piano man / Sing us a song tonight / Well, we're right in the mood for a melody / And you got us feeling all right." Is it "melody" or "memory"? Perhaps it's both, simultaneously.

Yes, it was a pretty good crowd for a Saturday, and we all managed to forget about life for a while. Now it was time to count the headlights on the highway and make our way back home. Two men in their early 60s had just spent more than three hours offering up their best: the music of both their lives and ours. Those who came to see just one of the performers should have been pleasantly pleased by the unexpected talent of the other. It's no exaggeration to say we had spent time in the presence of greatness, in terms of both the music and the history of pop culture. It was a memorable experience.

And while it was terrific fun to share it with upwards of 90,000 other fans, it has to be said that a football stadium is not a decent concert venue. The usual vendors hawking drinks and snacks climbed up and down the concrete steps. Their sales pitches were constantly interrupted as they bumped into people looking for their seats or making non-stop trips to the rest rooms. Doesn't anyone want to sit, watch and listen anymore? Don't we have enough busyness in our daily lives? Can't we relish the chance to relax and enjoy a wonderful performance? Politely and without interruption, please?

And how amazing would it be someday to witness this kind of magic in the more intimate setting of the small dark room, the piano bar? To be able to have just five minutes with one of the masters -- to get advice on technique, the intricate rhythms that can lie beneath each hand, and how to achieve a trill on that old middle C? Ah, well. A gal can dream.

by Corinne H. Smith
19 September 2009

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