March 31, 2009 / 10:00 PM / 11 years ago

Billy Joel edges out Elton John in double-header

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - On the surface, it always has seemed like a natural pairing: two of the rock era’s most successful acts — piano-based or otherwise — dispensing hit after hit after hit.

Singer Billy Joel performs during the Rainforest Foundation Benefit Concert in New York, May 8, 2008. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

But look a little deeper and the contrasts between Elton John and Billy Joel far outweigh the similarities. And their latest Face 2 Face arena show Saturday at Anaheim’s Honda Center again hammered home those differences, even as the packed house cheered the pop feast.

The most obvious is the performing styles. Both men still have a command of their instrument, but their manic stage days are behind them. And that’s fine; John turned 62 last Wednesday, and Joel hits 60 in May.

But latter-day John is all about the music, mostly sitting stoically at his piano; Joel’s still about the show, his eighty-eight on a rotator so that every in-the-round patron got a good look. John prefers a quiet dignity onstage, only occasionally addressing the audience; Joel is demonstrative, offering some rimshot-worthy shtick.

Basically, John plays to the crowd; Joel feeds off it. So while Sir Elton will never cede the catalog crown, in his stage battle with the kid from Long Island, the latter continues to win the Face 2 Faceoffs.

John’s voice for years was one of the most distinctive in rock. He sounded fine Saturday and still can sing with power, but that instantly recognizable bite is gone. He was at his best during the many slow songs, when his pipes weren’t forced to keep pace with the music; “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” for example, was a kitten compared to its beastly original.

So John’s solo set was heavy with ballads, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Those irresistible sing-along choruses wrap around often moving verses on topics of joy or pain, cryptic or barefaced, while he piles on the marvelous melodies. Highlights included the mournful “Daniel” and a superbly elongated “Rocket Man.”

Joel happily dispensed his hits and nonhits with aplomb and a winning joviality. He introduced “Zanzibar” by saying: “This is what they called an ‘album cut,’” emphasizing the quote marks with his fingers. “I don’t know if you remember ‘albums.’”

Joel’s portion included a couple of gratuitous nods to the tour stop; “The River of Dreams” was broken up by non sequitur verse of “California Girls,” and earlier, while performing with John, “My Life” opened with a few bars of “California Here I Come.” But his good humor was infectious. A video screen flashed quick images during “We Didn’t Start the Fire”; when he got to the line “England has a new queen,” there’s was a picture of Sir Elton. Zing!

John’s chart success and critical acceptance have put him closer to the pop stratosphere of his countrymen the Beatles, while Joel has labored in the mode of fellow New Yorker Neil Diamond: a hitmaker with a passionate following who couldn’t win over the critics. But their shared show renders itself critic-proof by virtue of its sheer value for the money, especially today. Consider this: The crowd got almost three dozen songs — including 16 top 10 singles and four No. 1s (17 and five if you count “Candle in the Wind”), only one of them post-‘80s and many delivered note-for-note — over an intermissionless three hours and 20 minutes. And still, it was easy to lament what they didn’t play.

Never has that key line from Joel’s “Piano Man,” which closed the show as a piano duet with John, been so apropos: It’s them they were coming to see to forget about life for a while.

Editing by Dean Goodman at Reuters

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