- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Sir Elton John and Billy Joel appear to be a curious duo onstage. Mr. Joel's blue-collar ruminations capture a personal look at the world around him, while Mr. John's tales of crocodiles, jets and other bombastic imagery bespeak a bigger picture. Suffice it to say Mr. John is the flashier of the pair.

Onstage for the first of three sold-out shows at the MCI Center, though, the duo come across as a natural, if not inspired, combination.

Last night, the first show of the piano men's latest double-bill tour, came off as being as spontaneous as two expert craftsmen could muster.

Piano pop's elder statesmen faced each other to set the music in motion, perched before a pair of adjacent grand pianos.

Mr. Joel, fleshy in a charcoal suit with a turquoise handkerchief, looked more like the classical musician he has become in middle age than a rock star.

Mr. John, once known for his gargantuan eyewear and bangle-upon-bangle suits, dressed down. He filled out a turquoise suit with only a few diamond sparkles for accent.

The pair opened with an arresting version of "Your Song," possibly Mr. John's most assured and poignant ballad.

Mr. John attacked each verse, his face hovering over the piano, perspiring with the effort. His partner, in comparison, leaned back to belt out the highlights, his gray goatee scratching the microphone, arms extended to swat at his keyboard.

Twin circular-framed video screens brought the action up-close, zooming in repeatedly on the pair's flying fingers.

They traded verses on a few tracks before Mr. Joel ceded the stage to the Rocket Man.

"Philadelphia Freedom," "Levon," "Bennie and the Jets" and "Rocket Man" anchored Mr. John's boisterous solo set, the latter's piano choruses allowing Mr. John to flex his digital dexterity.

The more muscular the song, though, the more Mr. John's voice became indistinguishable from his tight band's zealous mix.

Mr. Joel fared better. Time hasn't sapped his voice's radio-friendly gloss, nor do his better songs seem as rooted in time as Mr. John's.

Credit the New York native for singing about Brenda and Eddie in the summer of '75 and keeping it timeless.

Mr. Joel answered his friend's reserve of hits with some of his own, from "Allentown" and "Don't Ask Me Why" to "The River of Dreams."

By far the chattier of the two, Mr. Joel warned the adoring crowd that the first night of the tour represented a work in progress. "I always like the first time, anyway," he said with a playful leer.

He then cranked up a sublime "Don't Ask Me Why"with the tune's lush rhythms faithfully preserved.

Among the evening's few missteps were a noble but clunky "Here Comes the Sun" in tribute to George Harrison; the inclusion of the silly, unsatisfying "The Bitch Is Back"; and Mr. John's third costume change. When he donned a colorful wrap for the encore, it took attention away from the music.

Mr. Joel, as shown by his respectable impersonations of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on "Don't Be Cruel" and "Great Balls of Fire," boasts a malleable instrument. His mimicking of Mr. John on their shared numbers, however, meant a missed opportunity to contrast their voices and give audiences something new.

A classic rock concert may not be the forum for exploration, anyway. The crowd wanted the hits reproduced verbatim, and the duo didn't disappoint. How could they, each with a songbook teeming with rock staples, too many for even a 31/2-hour show to cover?

The evening should have felt like a paint-by-the-numbers concert, two pros cranking out their greatest hits for a throng that would forgive them if their act showed its wrinkles.

Instead, as their signature tunes, "Candle in the Wind" and "Piano Man," burst forth, Mr. John and Mr. Joel made it clear the songs felt as fresh to them as to their audience.


***

WHAT: "Elton John and Billy Joel: Face to Face"

WHERE: MCI Center, 601 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Sunday (Both shows are sold out.)

PHONE: 202/432-7328 or 800/551-7328

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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