Elton John, Billy Joel at Honda Center -- Concert Review

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.

But look a little deeper and the contrasts between Elton John and Billy Joel far outweigh the similarities. And their latest Face 2 Face show Saturday in Anaheim 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 this week, 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.

Venue: Honda Center, Anaheim (Saturday, March 28)

Set list:
Elton John/Billy Joel
Your Song
Just the Way You Are
Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
My Life

Elton John
Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Saturday Night Alright for Fighting
Burn Down the Mission
Madman Across the Water
Tiny Dancer
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
I'm Still Standing
Crocodile Rock

Billy Joel
Prelude/Angry Young Man
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
The River of Dreams
We Didn't Start the Fire
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Only the Good Die Young

Elton John/Billy Joel
I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues
Uptown Girl
The Bitch Is Back
You May Be Right
Bennie and the Jets
Back in the USSR
Candle in the Wind
Piano Man
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