Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I was part of a similarly dusty crowd at a Steely Dan’s Rent Party show in Vegas last summer, but the crowd was there for a rock show, and got one. Whereas these folks spent about a day-and-a-half’s wages—for one seat—at a milquetoast greatest hits recitation that’s better suited, along with the work of one Merrill Osmond, to busloads of blue-hairs in Branson, MO. And although the telltale scent of marijuana shows up at almost any concert, not even a hint of Spice was detectable, and still the crowd ate it up.
In fairness to Billy Joel: Elton John was the culprit. Mostly.
The two men entered to a foofy, feel-good orchestral score, mugging and giving each other obligatory props, thus setting the tone for the impending cheesefest. As they took their respective benches and sang “It’s a little bit funny, it’s a little bit sad,” the irony was lost on everyone. So, too, did the overt pandering of starting a near-$200/seat show with “Your Song,” and its “How are you [INSERT TOWN]?!” line, “How wonderful life is with you in the world.” It must be, if people will pay that much to hear songs that are as common as Lincoln pennies and rote as jump-rope rhymes in a dueling-pianos format available at how many neighborhood bars.
Starting the show by trading verses on each other’s ballads, moving slowly, stoking the flames? Sure, it’s valid—but each escalation should be striking and subtle. For the Joel tune, that was adding a sax player. No snap, crackle, or pop there, and more snoozy then understated.
Song three? “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Really rockin’ now with a couple of longhairs on guitar and bass, plus two drummers and a keyboard player ascending from under the stage. After the song’s big finish, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played for, one reckons, the hell of it. Another keyboard player popped up, along with more guitarists, bass and horn players, and percussionists. Joel and John went into “My Life,” the theme to that old sitcom where Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari (who?) played transvestites and, evidently, to how many fifty-somethings for whom “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” is something their kids say.
Thus ended the first face-to-face, and began John’s solo set. John, looking like Rip Taylor got wicked high then Bedazzled™ his jacket, led off with “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” His band—everyone appearing bored except longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone—helped beat a path for Branson through ten extended, but by-numbers hits including “Levon,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man” and “Crocodile Rock.” To his credit, John jumped around as much as hips could handle, and didn’t pander as much as Joel.
Joel, however, two years younger than 62-year-old John, rescued the Friday night from its Sunday morning blahs with a set that focused on rock, not schlock. “Angry Young Man” gave way to “Movin’ Out,” which begat stories of pre-tour rehearsals in 1970s Salt Lake City. Before, or perhaps after, “Allentown,” he apologized for rescheduling the last Face-to-Face SLC date, and explained why his piano rotates and John’s does not: “You guys thought you’d be looking at the back of my head all night,” Joel said to the crowd formerly at his back. “Well, a little head ain’t so bad now and then.”
The mixture of stunned silence, murmured disapproval and appreciative cheers that met Joel’s oral sex joke was easily the highlight of the show. Even as he pandered with more local references (such as referring to the cheap seats as “Logan”) Joel showed himself to be the NYC everyman he portrays in his tunes. He called for a mandatory retirement age for musicians, then used The Who’s Super Bowl travesty as an excuse to one-up them. After “Always A Woman,” a sweet song about Christie Brinkley, he quipped, “Not too long after that, we got divorced.”
It wasn’t all great; “River of Dreams” left one thinking if that’s what inspired John to write “Circle of Life” (which, thankfully, was absent from the set list) and the onscreen pop culture references for “We Didn't Start the Fire” made the song all the more heinous. But Joel finished strong with “It's Still Rock n' Roll to Me” and “Only the Good Die Young” before John came back out with another plate of soft cheese.
Okay, only one boring stinker (pre-fake encore): “I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues.” Then they whipped out Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and “You May Be Right,” alternating with John’s “The Bitch Is Back” and “Bennie and the Jets.”
The faux encore was an apt bookend to the show’s inauspicious start, and utterly worth escaping. “Candle in the Wind” and “Piano Man,” the songwriters’ best-known songs, are so beat-to-death that even Branson-ites might’ve puked in their laps.