Music Review: Elton John, Billy Joel's 'Face 2 Face' Concert at Nationals Park

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 13, 2009

The umpire calls it: Safe!

Safe as houses. Safe as milk. Safe as "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits." Hey, did Bruce Willis grow a goatee and take up the piano? Wait -- that's Billy Joel!

Nationals Park held its opener as a music venue Saturday night, and the reeling concert trade -- despite a dwindling stock of large draws -- deployed two of its big guns: Joel and Elton John. The Piano Man and the Rocket Man began co-headlining their Face 2 Face Tours in 1994, shortly after Joel stopped writing pop albums.

The lumbering double-header they brought to Washington could have been staged that same year, in fact, without any alteration of the 31-song set list. Even 62-year-old Sir Elton, who actually has continued to make new pop music in the present century, focused on material he wrote in his 20s and played nothing more recent than 1983's "I'm Still Standing."

Ballparks are sentimental places, no?

Given the cheers that erupted when their dual grand pianos rose portentously from the bowels of the stage just before game time, it was surprising that neither star ventured a solo take on one of his countless hits during a combined 3 1/2 hours onstage.

Although each brought his own band, the ensembles sounded equally anonymous. Crystal Taliefero's hand-drumming brought some buoyancy to "We Didn't Start the Fire," the "list" song that inspired a thousand high school history projects. Mostly, though, the arrangements were as predictable as the song selection, aside from having been adapted to voices grown thicker with age -- more noticeably in the case of John, whose range was greater to begin with.

A minor variation: "This is what they used to call an 'album cut,' if you remember," Joel said before a time-shifting "Zanzibar." Few in attendance wouldn't, though the front two rows were populated almost entirely by ladies who appeared to fall into that slender, youthful demographic.

The gig opened with two duets, "Your Song" and "Just the Way You Are." Joel allowed himself a self-aware smirk as he crooned the former tune's "I don't have much money." Pimping a purple Technicolor dreamcoat with the phrase "Music Magic" embroidered across the back, John called a timeout after that opening two-fer while a roadie tried to fix a stuck sustain pedal on the royal piano.

As John cursed, relief pitcher Joel played an impromptu and funny "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Joel even crawled under his fuming co-star's piano to try to help solve the problem himself. It was one of the most crowd-pleasing moments of the evening, with three hours to go. "At least you know we're not on tape!" Joel quipped. "This is an authentic rock-and-roll [expletive]. You don't see many of these anymore!"

John finally withdrew while Joel fielded his band for a 65-minute set that opened with a swaggering "Prelude/Angry Young Man." Later, "Don't Ask Me Why" put him in a contemplative mood: "I don't know why you're listening to me," he mused. "That was written for my first ex-wife. And this is the first show I'm doing after three divorces!"

This mookish candor couldn't help but make Joel the more engaging of the pair, despite a longer, glitzier set from John -- not to mention better songs.

By the time the latter reemerged to sweat his way through the opening suite of 1973's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," night had fallen on the Anacostia, allowing the LED video rig to flash and blink to full, seizure-inducing effect. A thrilling, then numbing "Rocket Man" first brought a galactic charge to the stadium, but continued until the gig began to feel like a bummed-out pop-star funeral.

After a singalong "Crocodile Rock," Joel returned for another shot at the number they'd aborted earlier, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." It was everything the crowd had paid their $102.50-plus for: a mash of the titans who paved the way for a juggernaut of guilty lite-rock pleasures. The seventh-inning stretch had long passed by the time Joel let the audience take a verse of the closing "Piano Man," but they sang with the fervor of a home crowd.

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