Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Atlanta Review


For generations of fans, their decades of albums rest next to each other in the “J’s” of their music collections. On Saturday night, Sir Elton John and Billy Joel brought their successful “Face 2 Face” tour back to Philips Arena downtown. For nearly four hours, they enthusiastically banged through their hit catalogs, deep album cuts and, for good measure, a couple of rockers from the Beatles, a common influence of the singers-songwriters.

In these tough economic times, the piano men made sure the ticket holders more than got their money’s worth.

“Thank you for purchasing the tickets and keeping us in work,” Joel told the sold-out, screaming crowd. Pointing to the rafters, Joel couldn’t resist adding: “Those people up there in Decatur, we want to thank you, too, for purchasing those seats. But you probably paid too much!”

The evening was expertly paced with John and Joel leading off with trading verses on their iconic ballads “Your Song” and “Honesty.”

Eventually, both men yielded the stage to each other and their bands for extended trips through the John and Joel songbooks.

“It’s nice to be home!” John, a Peachtree Road resident, told the roaring crowd before launching into fan favorite album cuts like “Funeral For a Friend” and “Madman Across the Water.”

He dedicated “Tiny Dancer” to his favorite local women, including his Atlanta household domestic goddess Lucy and B98.5 FM morning personality Vikki Locke (We’ve met Lucy and if there’s a rock star in residence at John’s Buckhead home, it’s her).

The singer also saluted Atlanta filmmaker Tyler Perry, telling the crowd, “I’m so proud to live in the same city as Tyler Perry. He’s fantastic!”

If John is rock’s regal statesman these days, Joel may be rock’s crazy uncle who trots out jokes well past their expiration date but manages to make you laugh anyway.

A creaky microphone stand served as a running joke for Joel, and he threatened to turn another into a lethal weapon during “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me.”

The singer also delighted fans with a live rendition of his epic “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Zanzibar,” a jazzy, overlooked cut from his album “52nd Street” (the 1978 original featured a memorable guest stint from jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard).

The evening built toward an epic finale featuring both men back behind their pianos with both bands, delivering blistering renditions of “The Bitch is Back,” “You May Be Right,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and a pair of rockers from “The White Album:” “Birthday” and “Back in the USSR.”

The evening’s biggest kick was watching Joel and John having such a ball trading vocals on each other’s hit songs (John was even singing along with the crowd during Joel’s opening verse of “You May Be Right.” He wasn’t alone. Even the black-suited Philips Arena security team loitering in the stairwells were mouthing the words).

The duo closed the evening for fatigued fans with “Candle in the Wind” and “Piano Man.”

On the way out of the arena, music fans were left to wonder if the floundering music industry with its current focus on creating cherry-pickable, disposable iTunes singles, is still capable of producing multi-decade artists like John and Joel.

Or as Mississippi-born bluesman Mose Allison, 81, a key Elton John influence, sang earlier this month during a gig at Blind Willie’s: “When I become was, will there still be someone around with essentially my kinda sound?”

A question worth posing in an era when the previous sold-out show at Philips Arena this month was Britney Spears, a performer who lip synched her entire two-hour concert.

- AJC

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