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July 12, 2009

Concert review: Billy Joel and Elton John Face to Face at Nationals Park

elton john and billy joelSun staffer Lori Sears was at last night's Elton John and Billy Joel show in Washington. Here is her play-by-play:

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I'm a big fan of both Elton John and Billy Joel.

So, naturally, there was no question that I'd be anywhere but Nationals Park in Washington last night to see the two piano rock 'n' rollers play "Face to Face." The guys have perfected this "F2F" gig, having played these "in tandem" concerts off and on since 1994.
Oh, what a night it was: a rocking, drama-filled evening with two music legends. The concert began much like the piano guys' past shows.

As the opening theme music boomed throughout the open-air baseball stadium, the two grand pianos emerged from underground, raising up to stage level and laying out 18 feet of pure piano. Soon after, Billy emerged, then Elton. A warm hug, kindly greetings to the capacity crowd, and they were on their way ...

The boys opened with "Your Song," with Billy starting the verses. An appropriate opener indeed. Next came "Just the Way You Are," which Elton kicked off. But not long into the song, Elton stopped playing the piano ... a curious and worrisome sight to any who've seen Elton in concert. It was clear that something was wrong.

Elton dove into the next number, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." But just a couple measures in he abruptly stopped the song. Turned out there were technical difficulties: The sustain pedal on his piano was sticking. Not good. Elton was growing increasingly upset. And Billy tried to calm the situation. He even whipped his suit jacket off and got down on his back under Elton's piano to help what looked like four technicians frantically trying to fix the glitch.
It didn't quite work. But Billy tried. And he quickly ran over to his own piano to play some "filler" music -- "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy," to the delight of the crowd. Billy's cute quips calmed the tension a bit. He said at one point: "This is an authentic rock-and-roll [screw-up]! At least you know it's not on tape!"
The piano guys decided to shelve their normal format of performing a few songs together at the beginning, and rather just let Billy go ahead and do his set, which was clear to see was not the original plan. Elton was supposed to do his set first this night. But Billy pulled it off like a pro, and after Elton departed the stage while his piano was being lowered underground and operated on,

Billy dove headfirst into "Angry Young Man." And went full-steam ahead: "Movin' Out," "Allentown," "Zanzibar" (a terrific treat), "Don't Ask Me Why," "She's Always a Woman" (with some cute comments about his current divorce -- No. 3, it is) and then the masterful "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," followed by "River of Dreams," "We Didn't Start the Fire" (with cute visual of Elton on the display screen during the lyric "England's got a new queen"), "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" (with Elvis gyrations) and "Only the Good Die Young."
Throughout Billy's set, the crowd was engaged and clearly having a grand time with an old friend. The words, everyone knew. The melodies, everyone adored. Billy was still relevant to this crowd, which spanned the ages. Billy, despite his fame and fortune, is an everyman. The easy-going way, the observational sense of humor, he's the guy next door (who also happens to be ridiculously talented, rich and famous).
After Billy wrapped "Only the Good Die Young," he departed the stage, ending his solo portion of the show. Elton's recuperating piano was soon elevated to stage level again, and the crowd held its collective breath that the piano's surgery was a success. And it was. The haunting intro to "Funeral for a Friend" began, and Elton soon emerged with warm waves to the crowd. As he ventured into his piano intro in the song, it appeared there were still a few (new) issues. But he played through the dreamy song, which morphs so brilliantly and wonderfully into "Love Lies Bleeding."
Elton rolled into the rollicking "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," and because of the sound issues he was still detecting, his tech quickly resolved things with a couple quick switcheroos of equipment. (Whew!) After "Saturday," Elton, to the crowd, explained the earlier pedal problem and how the notes had been running together. He then thanked Billy and his band for coming to his rescue and playing his set out of order.
Elton barrelled into "Burn Down the Mission," then played an extended version of "Madman Across the Water," which I got the feeling most of the crowd didn't know very well (shame, shame). Next, he played the crowd-pleasing "Tiny Dancer," and then the melancholy "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which, I admit, is my favorite tune. Elton can't sing the falsetto in the chorus any longer, but makes up for it by having his band sing those parts, while he harmonizes in his lower register. Nice. Very, very nice.

Afterward, Elton stayed in the early '70s with "Daniel" and then a super-extended (14-minute!) version of "Rocket Man," which the crowd seemed to eat up. While not one of my favorite tunes, "Rocket Man" featured several new, beautiful and inventive piano licks.
"Philadelphia Freedom" was next, as everyone, including two ushers, bopped and sang along. Elton was in his groove. He then slid into the percussive "I'm Still Standing" (a brief venture, this evening, into the '80s), then the rousing, playful "Crocodile Rock," which included requisite sing-along. The crowd was fully engaged. And just in time for Billy's re-emergence.
The two men could now pick up where they left off earlier in the night -- with "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." They shared the singing and shared the piano-playing for the rest of the show. The duo ventured into a spirited version of "My Life," with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" as intro. Then went for "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," "The Bitch Is Back," "You May Be Right" (with Billy "smashing" his sweat-filled towel against his piano to the sound of the breaking glass at the beginning of the song) and "Bennie and the Jets" (quite the crowd favorite).
The fellows slowed it down with "Candle in the Wind" (which they swapped vocals on) and finally, of course, "Piano Man." One sweet note: If I'm not mistaken, I could swear that the crowd (and the guys themselves) sang the words "Sing us a song, you're the Piano Men." Very sweet. Very true. And that they both did.

(Photo by Diane Williams)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 1:11 PM | | Comments (35)
Categories: Concert reviews


I was at the concert and hands down preferred Billy over Elton. I knew that with Rocketman Elton would basically stretch the song like he did the last time I saw him here in DC which was at the Verizon center. Yawn!

I felt the crowd was more energized during Billy's set than with Elton.

A very excellent review and a true blow by blow. What a great show, the only comment I would like to make is that as a musician I'm sure that there are a few roadies and sound men looking for a job. Giving a large break to the fact that this is first concert at Nat's park - for us that were in the upper levels the echo was realy out of control through Billy Joel's set - and quite the distraction. By Elton John's set they had turned up the front sound and killed some of the "echo cave" rebounds. If you are a real Elton John efficionado, you have noticed during Funeral for friend / Love lies bleeding - that the slide guitar parts were not there (they were being played but the amp mike must have been down so that only people near the stage could hear it - and throughout the entire show the sound fluctuated (drums would appear and disappear, bass, etc...). These are two very professional performers and I'm sure will not do well with problematic stadium acoustics compounded by a poor mix. In the sound folks defense they may have been scrambling to get a "decent" sound. It only goes to the professionalism of Billy Joel and Elton John to pull off such a great show over all obstacles.


I was at the concert. Excellent musicians, but they got stuck in the worst concert stadium I have ever been in. I was so stoked before the event, but totally in the music because fo the echo. Don't they have anyone on staff to check these things out in advance?

We were in section 222 - about a 45 degree angle from the stage. The echo was so bad that I couldn't even tell what songs they were playing at times (some of my favorite songs). I will never see another concert at Nationals Stadium, even it was free. What a disappointment.

Big fan of Elton and Billy, but not a fan of Nats Stadium for concerts.

Great review, and an amazing concert. I do not remember them playing "The Bitch is Back" -- are you sure about that? Maybe everything is blurring together, but I don't think they did that one.

I couldn't agree more with the review. I know Elton had a legitimate and frustrating problem last night when the sustain pedal got stuck (it happened to my in-laws when they moved recently and I got under the piano just like Billy did last night and I managed to fix it- otherwise the sound would've been awful). But, I think Elton could have handled it a little more professionally. He did make up for it in his set by giving Billy and his band their due credit for stepping it up (although secretly I was a little disappointed that Billy's solo set was done first instead of second like always), but nonetheless, a great show. It didn't even bother me that they did a lot of their songs (Billy especially) in lower keys- the energy, enthusiasm, and pure heart and soul is evident in every show of both of them. So hats off to you both for a great show, definitely got my money's worth, and please keep 'em coming.

Julie: They did play "BIB" in the last set when both were together. Enjoyed Billy Joel with his flyswatter directing the band.

From a sound perspective, FedEx Field (which I otherwise hate) is a better venue. Their sound system did not work well for this ball park.

I have to say (sitting straight on dead center in section 214) that while lots of folks loved Billy, Elton put on a true show. Funeral for a Friend (given its timing vis-a-vis Jacko) was just a phenomenal opener. Rocket Man was a tour-de-force but didn't quite need to go so long. The only thing missing for me was "Someone Saved My Life". Nevertheless, Elton had a great set list.

The two of them at the end together absolutely made the night.

I'd knock them down on technical, but they win on performance.

Grade (1-5):
Sound / technical / venue: 2
Billy: 3.5
Elton: 4
Billy plus Elton: 4.5

Here's a review of last nights concert...

We were also in section 222 and thought the sound was awful. Kudos to Billy for keeping the show going, but the stadium was definitely not built to host such a large the very least they shouldn't be selling tickets in the upper level. The echos were terrible. Couldn't understand hardly anything. I definitely wouldn't see another show there.

A great concert!! Definitely enjoyed Billy more than Elton. Didn't really care for Elton's extended mixes of his songs. Worst part of evening was the stadium staff's inability to efficiently get people with field seats to their seats. Had a ticket saying I had field seats, but was told by an usher I had to stand in line to get a bracelet to get on the field. The line barely moved, and when I got to the front, they had run out of bracelets so they marked my ticket with a black line from a sharpie. Got down on the field and was told again I had to get a bracelet so I went to another table. They marked my ticket with an "x" and then gave me a bracelet. Billy Joel was already a few songs into his solo set by the time I reached my seats. Very dissappointed. Wouldn't recommend Nationals Stadium for a concert.

In the words of Simon Cowell, Elton's set was quite "self indulgent." At one point during the turgid Rocket Man (which I love), I found myself wondering if Billy would ever get sick of touring with the Diva. Billy won the evening for sure.

Thanks, Glen, you helped jog my memory -- now I do remember thinking at the time that was an appropriate tune given Elton's hissy fit! Like I said, the evening is blurring together. I'm a bigger Billy fan, even though I do like Elton a lot, but I would score Billy better in terms of pure entertainment.

I had great seats, 15th row, center, so the acoustics sounded amazing from where I was sitting. I did take a look around the rest of the stadium and think to myself that any of the seats between the bases were a loooong way from the stage; I thought that in terms of sightlines, but it didn't occur to me that it would be difficult to hear as well. That's too bad, because even that far away, tickets were around $100 each.

The reviews are right on. The sound system was a wreck, particularly for Billy Joel's set. Convinced me that Nationals stadium is not the place to see a concert.

Thought Elton John bested Joel this time around.

Sound/Venue 2
Billy 3.0 (not all his fault)
Elton 4.2
Both 4,2

Another complaint about the sound. We were way up in section 405 and couldn't understand a single word spoken over the mics the entire night. We could tell something was wrong with Elton's piano by the action going on under it and seeing him mouth the f word on the screen, but never heard any of the comments made by either performer mentioned in the article. It really was very disappointing to wait 34 years to see them and hear my favorite song, only to feel like we missed half the show. We had a great time, but I am incredibly annoyed that the acoustics were so horrible. Did they even bother to do a sound check??

This review is spot on and well put. They did play the bitch is back (but I'm with you they all seemed to run together after awhile). That said, I too am disappointed that Billy ended up taking one for the team and going first. He is so more engaging and it's like being in a pub arm and arm with your friends singing as loud as you can when he is on stage. I really wish they had stuck with the program. I say this having seen this show the last time it was in town at the Verizon Center. I thought BJ stole both shows.

I too thought that it was awful the way that Sir Elton handled the situation with the pedal. Is that part of being a professional performer? Billy could have clearly stepped in with the piano and just let EJ sing.

I did not experience the sound problems. I was sitting right above the 3rd base dugout. But I don't doubt that the sound was not good in places.

Last - it was a great evening and I hope that this isn't the last time that they tour together.

Nationals Park should NEVER have another concert in their stadium again. The echo was so bad that we actually left about halfway through the show.
One in 224 could not tell what song was being performed it was so bad. I know these two guys are great and I have seen their Face To Face concert at the MCI center, so I was disappointed and angry about the echo ruining it. What a waste of money. What a let-down.

First time seeing both of these amazing artists and I must say, one of the best concerts I have seen. Luckily I was sitting right behind the visitors dugout and the sound was great. I thought they both handled the tech problems well, but I am sure that Sir Elton had someones ass for it. All in all a superb show from two masters.

Reading all of the comments about the poor sound quality in varying sections makes me really sad for the people who suffered through that. It was a great show, I'm sorry that everyone in the stadium didn't get the same experience. I stayed in the Marriott Courtyard a few blocks away, and when we checked in around noon that day, we heard them doing a sound check, so I know they did one. I wonder why there were so many issues? It must be because of the opening behind center field. Football stadiums (like FedEx and RFK) don't have that problem; maybe big concerts like that should stick with round stadiums.

My daughter and I were in Section 131 two rows from the concourse and the sound was excellent from where we sat above first base. Sorry to hear it was so bad in other areas. I did notice on the way out that the people closer to the side of the stage where much closer and had better views but maybe poorer sound quality. I am much bigger Billy Joel fan than an Elton John fan but I have to admit that I thought Elton won tonight. More people seemed to be into Elton's set as evidenced by a lot more dancing along which is partly because I think he went on after Billy and people had made a few trips to the beer concessions by then and partly because some of his songs just seemed to be more suited for dancing along. I had looked up the set list from prior shows on the internet and definitely missed hearing Joel's Honesty and John's Levon but really enjoyed Just the Way You Are and Philadelphia Freedom. We walked out during Bennie and the Jets to avoid the crowd on the metro but all in all we had a great time and would definitely see them together again.

Great concert! Both Billy and EJ were terrific!

If you were on the floor sound was not a problem. I feel awful for the people in bad sound areas....but since the tour is sponsored by Major League Baseball the sound won't be any better in Philly. Another baseball park.

My only comment would be for Billy and Elton fans to lighten up a little on the reviews. These guys are 62 years old! I never dreamed when I was at a Billy Joel show in 1983 that I would be seeing him now. Both men can still sing well. Do you really care that Rocket Man was to long??? I wish Billy would extend several songs as well so we could stay till 1:00AM!

The sets were perfect. I have seen Elton go first and Billy go first over the years and it never matters. They are both awesome. I actually enjoyed the last hour the best as both bands were
top notch with a very difficult setup.

Great job guys!

We had enjoyed the show a lot. I uploaded a short video clip I took during the show, showing Billy Joel the Piano (technician) Man :-)

Enjoyed the show, but did anyone else think it strange that they didn't come out for an encore, especially since they left the lights out long enough to make the audience think that's what they planned to do? Maybe Elton was still in a funk . . .

We drove from Pittsburgh on Saturday to see the show, and couldn't have been more thrilled! Yes, Billy and Elton have aged, and so have I. I turned 51 on the day of the concert, and hope the rest of the year is as enjoyable as the concert. Singing and dancing to songs that remind me of good times in life! Still on a "high"!!!

For the love, folks. It was the first major concert at a new venue. There are bound to be some bugs in the sound sytems. Maybe they shouldn't have sold the upper level seats, maybe there were crowd control glitches, etc. But, it was a fantastic show and most of the crowd, at least was happy. As far as the sound issues goe, I was in section 135 (couldn't see a thing, but for the screens) but the sound quality was much better than I have experienced in the upper reaches of Verizon Center and DAR. Don't give up on the stadium as a venue just yet.

I LOVED the show...especially when the 2 played together! Thought Billy Joel did a fantastic job of lightening up things at the beginning! Anyone know if it was a sold out show? I was surprised there was no encore. However, what were they supposed to play after Piano Man?! Would see them again in a heartbeat!!!

Steve -- According to all the setlists I've seen online, they never do an encore for this show. People around me speculated that it takes a while for those stadium lights to warm up. The delay did seem to indicate that they would do an encore, but I don't think it was planned that way.

Adir -- great clip! I took some pictures of Billy on the stage under the piano. He's a good sport.

unfortunately because of the technical problems they had to cut out levon and uptown girl. can't believe he didn't do uptown girl.

Are people really complaining about the venue???? If they had a problem with the sound quality, maybe they should go see Simon & Garfunkel sing "Sounds of Silence" at Camden Yards where there's NEVER been a major Concert!!!! Fireworks night ain't exactly a big city event.

It's great that most people enjoyed the performance, but it sounds like an oldies show from the song titles listed. Only one song newer than 1977 from Elton, how lame.

Um, didn't anyone notice that Elton John can't sing very much any more? There's no nuance or range to his voice now, and he compensated by turning up the volume on the rest of the band. At this concert at least, all four of my party felt that Elton never really got engaged, while Billy Joel put everything he had into his performance. He has also lost far less of his vocal ability. His band was better too :) We thought the stadium venue was OK - we had field seats off to the right - the sound was actually quite good down there, and the light show was spectacular!

I was one deep from the stage. Saw the sweat drip off of Elton and standing next to the gentelman who got Elton's bench. Your analysis of the duo was dead on. Just how you described it. Couldn't have been a better F2F show 4 a major stadium. Stage front, acoustically (sp?), the show was at a near perfect decible. Smooth and easy to hear without auditory strain on the vocals. Closer rows on all field seats were staggered for optimal views. All in all, very impressive for a large venue.

The concert was overall great but the venue was a poor choice what with herding folks to 2 different places to check in so that we were late and a poor job on the part of ushers who may have been understaffed and untrained in sheparding folks to their seats and keeping control of roving bands of inebriated revelers

Excellent article Sam. A bizarre night at Nationals Park. I took my 14 year old daughter. The Rocket Man lost his booster. I described the play-by-play in my blog
Fitting that Billy followed the train wreck with Angry Young Man : ).

Loyalists will forgive and forget, but guess which t-shirt my daughter wanted after the show?

I saw the 1st face to face concert in Milwaukee co. stadium...., that was my favorite concert ever..., they will be in Wrigley field, chi-twn July 21st... I am hoping to get there......

Here's a vid of the Billy rocking into the Angry Young Man intro...

It is so refreshing to read a review that the reviewer is so familiar with the works of the artists. Thank you!

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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