Billy Joel and Elton John, Honda Center (Anaheim), 3/28/2009

One of the very best concerts that I ever saw was Billy Joel and Elton John at the Ohio State University Stadium in Columbus, OH during their first tour together back in 1994.  When I found out that they were touring again this year and would be doing a show at the Honda Center (formerly The Pond) in Anaheim, I was immediately interested in getting tickets to see them again and to give my wife the chance to attend.

The timing for getting tickets turned out to be a bit of a challenge, as they went on-sale last December during the week that we were on vacation in Florida.  The on-sale time, in fact, happened to precisely correspond with our dining reservation at Tusker House in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Ticketmaster currently doesn’t have a mobile-friendly web-site that can be used for ordering tickets from a cell phone, so I ended up programming the phone number for their automated ticket ordering system into my phone.  Their phone ordering system is a pretty big hassle to use and the process of ordering tickets used up the majority of the time we were waiting for our table at the restaurant, but I did manage to get the tickets ordered.

Traffic between home and Anaheim can be pretty heavy on a Saturday afternoon, so we made arrangements for our son’s babysitter to arrive in time for my wife and I to leave home around 4pm, which we figured should be plenty of time for us to get there in time for the 7:30pm concert.  The drive wasn’t overwhelmingly bad for a Saturday and we made it down to Orange County by 5:30pm, giving us enough time to stop off at a nearby mall for a quick dinner at the food court.  We then made it over to the Honda Center around 6:45pm or so.  Traffic was a little bit heavy getting into the parking areas, but it wasn’t overwhelmingly bad.  I did think that they would have benefited by a few more people directing traffic (particularly controlling access to the left turn lanes from Katella Ave.), but I’ve seen worse.

I had been to the Honda Center (still The Pond, at that time) once before to see one of Billy Joel’s solo concerts back in 1999.  While I didn’t remember the layout exceptionally well, I did recall that I had been seated in the cheap seats in the top tier for that show and that the view was still reasonably decent.  Considering that the tickets time time were over $100 each for anything on the lower tiers, we went with similar seats again this time.  When we first got to our seats, our first reaction was that we were awfully high up and far from the stage, but we really ended up being pretty happy with where we were.  Our view, while distant, was unobstructed and from the front, which wasn’t true of many of the closer seats.  The picture below, taken using my cell phone camera while we were waiting for the show to start, gives an idea of how far we were from the stage.

View from our seats at The Honda Center 

The concert started about 20 minutes late (not too bad for a rock concert), with the lights initially going down about 1/2 way followed by an overture of instrumental versions of some of Billy Joel and Elton John’s songs, played as two pianos rose from beneath the stage.  The house lights then went the rest of the way down as Billy Joel entered to "Yankee Doodle" and then Elton John entered to a very British tune that was extremely familiar, but I don’t know the title.  The two greeted one another and then headed to their pianos to start an introductory series of duets.

They started with a couple of their most familiar ballads: Elton’s "Your Song" followed by Billy’s "Just the Way You Are".  Although rock concerts often will start out with faster, more dynamic numbers in order to pump up the crowd, it actually seemed very fitting to open this concert with a couple very familiar songs that only required the two performers and their pianos.  At a length of nearly 3 1/2 hours, the concert is something of a marathon, making it appropriate for them to pace themselves a bit.  During these first two numbers, I was a little bit concerned about our seats as they were presented with minimal special effects and without any large screens to improve the view for those in the back.  We hadn’t thought to bring along binoculars to the concert and I wasn’t sure we were going to see much.

The next number, Elton’s "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me", alleviated those concerns by demonstrating the extent of the lighting and special effects that would be featured in the show.  This number was the first where they used a previously unused large screen across the back of the stage, which was used throughout the remainder of the concert to alternate between views of the performers and various animation and images that fit with the songs.  There were additional smaller screens along the lower part of the stage as well and plenty of elaborate lighting effects.  During "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me", all these elements were mainly used to evoke various views of sunsets.  The initial round of duets concluded with a rousing performance of Billy Joel’s "My Life", after which the lights went down as the stage was prepared for Elton’s solo set.

The concert featured solo sets by each of the two performers with their own band, lasting a little over an hour each.  These sets were essentially somewhat abbreviated versions of their regular solo concerts without any cross-pollination.  This was a change from the 1994 concert and represented one of my few small disappointments with the show.  In the earlier concert, each performer’s solo set had included a cover of one of the other performer’s songs (Elton did "My Life" and Billy did "I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues").  In addition, each performer had come back on stage for one number during the other’s solo set in the earlier concert.  Both of those elements were missing from last night’s concert, which did make it feel a bit less special.  Honestly, that is a somewhat minor complaint and one that probably wouldn’t even occur to anyone who hadn’t attended one of the concerts during their earlier tour.  Both Elton John and Billy Joel are true headliners and their solo sets demonstrated them to still be excellent concert performers.

Although the two performers definitely have very complimentary musical styles, their performing style is very different.  Elton John takes a fairly straightforward, almost business-like approach to performing his songs while Billy Joel takes a more comedic and dynamic approach.  Elton remained seated at the piano throughout his solo set, generally only getting up to take his bows between numbers.  There was very little banter during his performance, mostly limited to announcing song titles and their originating albums.  I was a bit surprised that he never actually introduced his band, though.  This style works for him, though, as he essentially allows the songs to speak for themselves.

Billy Joel’s solo set included a great deal of banter, including lots of humor and wise cracks.  Early in his set, for example, he spent some time discussing the pluses and minuses of all of the different sections of the arena, including pointing out that the most expensive seats were directly under an extremely heavy lighting rig that was suspended by a few thin cables and manned by technicians who “haven’t been able to get to a bathroom for over 4 hours”.

During that same segment, he also talked quite a bit about how he was facing away from most parts of the arena while sitting at the piano and, during the song that followed, it was revealed for the first time that his piano was on a turntable so that he would regularly change the direction he was facing during the rest of the show.  There was a lot more movement overall during his segments, with his band members frequently coming up to the front of the stage for solos.  For the last two numbers of his set, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, the piano was lowered and Billy moved around the stage during the performances, playing the guitar during the former and tossing and twirling a microphone stand through the latter.  After just about every number, he acknowledged a contributing band number by name and hometown.

The majority of the numbers during Elton John’s solo performance were extended concert versions containing expanded instrumental portions, showcasing both Elton’s piano skills and the talents of his other band members.  The fairly lengthy numbers were likely a big part of the reason for the fairly minimal banter and the performers were musically exciting enough to make that seem a fair tradeoff.  Elton’s segment also made very heavy use of animation on the screen to enhance the intended mood of the songs.  The use of animation (ranging from rocket ships to pink flamingos) and extended instrumentals particularly enhanced the very lengthy, at times fairly psychedelic,  performance of “Rocket Man”, which turned out to be a major highlight.  Another, somewhat contrasting highlight was the use of some fairly simple comic book style imagery to help bring to life the nostalgia infused lyrics of “Crocodile Rock”.

Billy Joel’s concert performances generally tend to stick more closely to the album arrangements, although many of his songs have always contained fairly lengthy instrumental solos.  The long instrumental “Prelude” that segues into “Angry Young Man” has often provided a great opportunity to highlight his piano skills in concerts and opened his solo set at this show. During his set, the screen was mostly used for close-ups of Billy and various soloists.  For the most part, his performances used more traditional lighting effects to establish mood instead of the animation and other images frequently used by Elton.  The main exception was "We Didn’t Start the Fire", where the screen was used to show images of each of the historical events/items mentioned during the song.  The biggest laugh of the night was when they flashed a picture of Elton John on the screen during the line "England’s got a new queen."

While I have long enjoyed Elton John’s music and do have a few of his albums, I definitely have been much more of a fan of Billy Joel and for much longer.  I have every album he has released and have seen his full solo concert live three times.  One of the effects of this was that I knew very well all of the Billy Joel songs that were performed last night, but some of the Elton John songs were less familiar to me.  I admit that I had to track down a review for an earlier concert in the tour, which included a play list, in order to even remember some of the titles.  Even some of Elton’s more familiar songs took a little longer for me to recognize.  In even a lengthy concert featuring two such prolific and long careered singer/songwriters, necessarily they could only cover a somewhat limited portion of their catalog.  Because of that, the concert did tend to be dominated by their most familiar hits, although each did throw in an occasional less-known song during their solo sets.

Elton opened his set with "Love Lies Bleeding", which was not a song that I recognized, but which gave him a very good opportunity to quickly show off some of his most spirited piano playing.  He followed that with "Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)", a familiar hit that did a lot to pump up the audience.  The early part of the set also included "Burn Down the Mission" and "Madman Across the Water", two more lesser known songs that delivered pretty well musically even if they lacked the nostalgia of familiarity.  Eventually, Elton gave a brief introduction inviting the audience to feel free to sing along to an upcoming string of songs he guessed everyone would know.  He then went through a sequence that included such big hits as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", "Daniel", "Rocket Man", "Levon", and "I’m Still Standing" (I found it ironic that he performed this one sitting down).  His set ended with "Crocodile Rock", a very popular and familiar hit that helped to leave the audience in a great mood for Billy’s entrance.

As I mentioned earlier, Billy’s set opened with "Prelude/Angry Young Man" which was then followed up two more popular and fast-paced hits: "Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)" and "Allentown".  After that came, "Zanzibar", the one song in his set that was least likely to be familiar to his casual fans.  In his introduction, he acknowledged that the song was never a single and would only likely be recognizable to those that knew well his 1978 album "52nd Street".  He made a point of emphasizing the fairly impressive flugelhorn solo featured in the song and presented that as a good reason not to use the unfamiliar song as an opportunity for a bathroom break.  He followed that up with "Don’t Ask Me Why", another song that was never a big hit, although one that might be a bit more familiar.  He returned to the bigger hits with "She’s Always a Woman", "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", one of my personal favorites.  One clever touch was stopping suddenly in the middle of a performance of "River of Dreams" for a short performance of The Beach Boys’ "California Girls".  I would imagine that he picks different songs to insert there depending on the venue.  He closed out his set with "We Didn’t Start the Fire", "It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me" and "Only the Good Die Young".

Elton’s set came before Billy’s in the 1994 concert as well and looking at various reviews from other concerts in their long running series of tours suggests that this is probably always the order.  I think that this is probably the wise choice.  Elton’s set tends to be a bit more artistically and musically impressive, while Billy’s is flashier and faster pace.  The length of the concert does make it a little bit of an endurance test.  Billy is definitely the more dynamic performer of the two and I think that is what is needed to retain the audience’s attention when going into the 3rd hour of a concert.

After the two solo sets, Billy and Elton join together on-stage for a grand finale of duets.  Together with their combined bands, they perform Elton’s "I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues" and "The Bitch is Back" and Billy’s "Uptown Girl" and "You May Be Right".  All four are among the performers’ more popular and crowd-pleasing hits and play very well with the large band and the combined voices of the two singers.  Next, they asked for those in the audience celebrating birthdays to wave before going into a cover of The Beatles’ "Hey, It’s Your Birthday".  This was followed by another Beatles cover, "Back In the USSR", a song that has been an occasional part of Billy’s repertoire ever since his groundbreaking tour in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.

The concert is ended much as it began, with just Billy and Elton on stage at the pianos.  They close with songs that have become pretty much their signature pieces, Elton’s "Candle In the Wind" and Billy’s "Piano Man".  Both are songs that the audience members at these concerts are pretty much guaranteed to know by heart.  In fact, during "Piano Man", the singers allow the audience to sing the chorus, even stopping the accompaniment during the last repetition.    As these songs provide such an obvious endpoint for the concert, Billy and Elton skip the old gamesmanship of fake exits and encores, which results in an almost surprisingly dignified ending to the show.

I wouldn’t say that I was quite as impressed with last night’s concert as I was with the one back in 1994.  As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t some intermixing of the two performers during their solo sets.  I also think they played a bit better in an outdoor stadium than in the indoor arena, where the somewhat excessive amplification had a tendency to distort the lyrics.  Of course, both performers are also 15 years older now and are showing their age a bit.  I couldn’t help but notice that "Big Shot", which always was Billy’s most physical concert number, was absent last night as well as from the solo concert that I saw a couple years ago.

Still, despite some flaws, this was still an amazing show and very much one where I felt we got our money’s worth.  If the opportunity arises to see them in concert again, I wouldn’t hesitate to go.  I certainly would highly recommend the show, particularly to anyone who has never had the opportunity to see either or both of these great performers on stage.

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