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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Sing Us a Song, You're the Piano Repair Man

Chris Klimek

large_joel_john 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 is Billy Joel!

For Nationals Park’s opener as a pop music venue, the reeling concert trade deployed two of its dwindling stock of big guns, Elton John and the “Uptown Girl” guy. The Rocket Man and the Piano Man began co-headlining their Face-numeral-two-to-Face tours in 1994, shortly after Joel stopped writing pop albums.

The lumbering double-header they brought to Washington Saturday night could have been staged in that year without any alteration to the 31-song setlist. Even 62-year-old Sir Elton, who actually has continued to make new pop records in the 21st century, focused on material he wrote in his 20s and played nothing more recent than “I’m Still Standing” from 1983.

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 true solo take of one of his countless hits in a combined 3.5 hours on the field.

Though each brought his own band, their 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 Sir Elton, whose range was greater to start.

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, but the front two rows were populated almost entirely by ladies who appeared to fall into that slender, youthful demographic.

The gig opened with a duo of duets, “Your Song” and “Just the Way Your Are.” Joel allowed himself a self-aware smirk as he crooned the former tune’s “I don’t have much money” line.

Pimping a purple Technicolor dreamcoat with the phrase “Music Magic” embroidered across his back, John called a time out after that opening two-fer while a roadie tried to fix what was later revealed to be a stuck sustain pedal on the royal piano.

As Sir Elton cursed, relief pitcher Billy Joel gave an impromptu, funny “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He even crawled under his fuming co-star’s piano to try to diagnose 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 fuck-up. You don’t see many of these any more!”

John finally withdrew while Joel fielded his band for a 65-minute set that opened with a swaggering “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 Sir Elton — not to mention better songs.

By the time John 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 chill to stadium, but continued to swell until the gig began to feel like a bummed out pop star funeral.

After a sung-along “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 that 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.

So can anyone explain why Joel was firing away at various targets — including his own posterior — with a giant fly swatter during “It’s My Life” and “You May Be Right”? Chalk it up to the mysteries of Art.

An altered, much commented-upon version of this review appears in Monday's Paper of Record.

Elton John and Billy Joel at Nationals Park, Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Setlist

EJ and BJ together

Your Song Just the Way You Are Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me (aborted due to stuck pedal on EJ's piano) Battle Hymn of the Republic (BJ solo; goofing around while roadies work on EJ's piano) Yankee Doodle (BJ solo; goofing around while roadies work on EJ's piano)

BJ's band

Prelude/Angry Young Man Anthony' Song (Movin' Out) Allentown Zanzibar Don't Ask Me Why Scenes from an Italian Restaurant River of Dreams We Didn't Start the Fire It's Still Rock and Roll to Me Only the Good Die Young

EJ's band

Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting Burn Down the Mission Madman Across the Water Tiny Dancer Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Daniel Rocket Man Philadelphia Freedom I'm Still Standing Crocodile Rock

EJ and BJ's bands together

Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me It's My Life I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues The Bitch Is Back You May Be Right Benny and the Jets Candle in the Wind Piano Man