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The entertainer and the pretender

Packed. Folks from all walks of life. No pungent smell in the air. Plenty of leather, but of the fashionable sort, not the biker or "hard rock guy on a weekend bender" sort.

Last evening's Billy Joel and Elton John "Face to Face" performance smacked of the sort of politeness that, according to many of rock's finest critics, signified the death of rock 'n' roll in the mid to late '70s.

A cynic might have had a field day.

Limos parked all up and down every available street surrounding HSBC Arena. The Pearl Street Brewery full of folks who haven't come downtown for a rock show since . . . well, whatever.

Yes, two of the "crown princes" of rock 'n' roll rolled into town last night, to perform yet another show in their "Face to Face" tour.

The show was sold out. The audience was way too forgiving. But still, there were moments of transcendent beauty during the more than two hours of performance.

Sadly, only a few of them came courtesy of Elton John.

Here's the deal.

Elton stunk pretty bad.

Billy stole the show in such a blatant fashion that, at several times throughout the performance, one actually felt sorry for the wig-wearing, strangely scat-singing John.

It was actually that bad.

The show opened on a positive -- no, sublime -- note.

Twin pianos rose from beneath the stage, as spotlights swerved and swayed about. The crowd went nuts. John and Joel strolled nonchalantly onto the stage, and sat down at their respective pianos. Yes, "Your Song" was the obvious first choice, and we got it. Joel took the first verse, and made John sound like a throaty troll.

This set the stage for the rest of the first set. "Just The Way Your Are" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" sounded great, while Joel was singing them, and frankly lame while John manned the mike.

It got worse.

Joel -- animated, humorous, seemingly at ease -- left the stage, and John and his band offered a set of the man's "greatest hits."

If I could have left, I would have.

John now sings in some strange sort of scat-slur -- "I think I'm Bob Dylan" style, and every single song in his "solo" set suffered from his approach. Yes, it's true, Elton can't hit the high notes any more; but Lord, did he have to offer this faux-soul improv in the place of the melodies his songs once boasted?

"Love Lies Bleeding" was as bloated and self-important as ever; "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was a bit better, but still sounded like something lifted from a daytime drama; "Philladelphia Freedom" was disco, not surprisingly; "I Want Love" a decent ballad; "Rocket Man" the only hint that John was actually a songwriter we should've ever cared about.

This writer's reactions did seem to be a bit out of tune with the crowd's. They loved John, and showered him with praise.

After the lights dimmed, and the crowd shuffled a bit, Joel strolled on stage, every bit the at-ease performer. Smirking, seemingly, he sat down and lit into the opening chords of "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," from his 1977 album "The Stranger."

It only got better from there.

Joel led his crack band -- including longtime members Liberty Devito and Mark Rivera -- through a set that included such diverse and engaging tunes as "Movin' Out," " Angry Young Man," "Allentown," "River Of Dreams," " I Go To Extemes," "New York State of Mind," and "Only the Good Die Young."

Both artists returned to the stage for set that included "My Life," "The Bitch Is Back," "You May Be Right," "Bennie and the Jets," a cover of the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," the Jerry Lee Lewis nugget "Great Balls Of Fire," and of course, Joel's classic, "Piano Man."

One felt that Joel was slumming it. He is a monumental talent, a songwriting voice in league with Paul Simon and, when he's at his absolute best, Bruce Springsteen.

Sharing a show with John was frankly beneath him.


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