- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

A technical mishap provided a welcome note of unexpected drama early on during Saturday’s first-ever concert at Nationals Park.

The Face 2 Face tour starring Elton John and Billy Joel doesn’t exactly travel light. A giant, sleek black stage in center field, with jumbo screens on the wings, had been erected complete with 40-foot-tall banners showing the artists on their home turf — Mr. Joel in New York; Mr. John in London. Just before the show, two pianos rose through the stage on lifts (Mr. Joel’s signature Baldwin on the right and Mr. John’s gleaming Yamaha on the left), and the two artists emerged to take their places for a few quick duets before Mr. John’s set was to begin.

They kicked off with Mr. John’s “Your Song,” followed by Mr. Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” But by the middle of the second song, it was clear that all was not right onstage. Mr. John was looking askance at his piano and hollering at roadies, one of whom emerged and slid under his piano like a mechanic repairing a leaky exhaust system. Even Mr. Joel gamely took a peek under the Yamaha’s undercarriage.

Whatever they tried to do, it didn’t work. After a shaky rendition of “Miami 2017,” Mr. John walked off the stage in a huff. Mr. Joel’s band rallied, took the stage and commenced their set first. Mr. Joel cracked, “This is an authentic rock-and-roll [foul] up. You don’t see many of these anymore.”

In Mr. John’s defense, however, it seems reasonable that an artist of his stature and experience should expect to perform without a jammed sustain pedal.

In the end, the glitch proved to be a little bit of spilt milk in a 33-song musical feast that left all but the most gluttonous adult contemporary fans sated. Mr. Joel’s set featured a rapid fire spray of crowd-pleasers, executed without too much frippery or noodling. There is a relentless drive to the melodies in “Movin’ Out,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Don’t Ask Me Why” that Mr. Joel mines to great effect in performance with bombastic piano playing and an energetic singing style.

First attempted in 1994, the Face 2 Face tour’s pairing of Mr. John and Mr. Joel almost had to happen. The two are nearly exact contemporaries — Mr. John is 62; Mr. Joel is 60 — and they occupy similar spots in the public imagination as leading piano men in a world of guitar heroes. But up close, it’s their differences that shine through. Mr. Joel is unabashedly parochial, with songs rooted in his native New York and a band featuring a core of longtime cronies who match their patron’s jocular, in-your-face style. Mr. John is the more cosmopolitan figure, the more gifted composer and player and his accompanists — including bassist Bob Birch and guitarist Davey Johnstone — come off as top-flight players rather than as an enthusiastic bar band. Mr. John’s lyrics (written by longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin) are lush with metaphor and imagery, while Mr. Joel’s lyrics confine themselves to the here and now.

Mr. John seems to take more liberties with the recorded versions of his songs in performance. A version of “Rocket Man,” for instance, stretched out over perhaps 15 minutes, drawing out secondary themes. His playing is extremely precise and considered, and even his quips are more erudite than Mr. Joel’s. Apologizing for the mishap with the piano, Mr. John said that playing with the sustain pedal in the down position would make him sound like, “Philip Glass meets Stockhausen.”

The pair reunited for eight more songs to close the evening. Mr. Joel seemed distracted — at one point he appeared more interested in swatting flies than pulling his weight on “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Mr. Joel’s singing voice failed him utterly at points, but he barefaced his way through with a bravura smirk. Mr. John, for his part, seemed resigned to these antics rather than annoyed.

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