Billy Joel and Elton John: Piano Man and the Crocodile Rock
Story by Clay Butler. Photo off the Web.
Originally published in The Santa Cruz Sentinel
February 13th 2001
In 1976, I was 10 years old and my primary source of music was my mom’s 8-track collection. Al Stewart, Blood Sweat and Tears, Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkle, The Carpenters and Billy Joel were the ones most likely to be found in the car and at any given moment. Although I enjoyed them all for various reasons, it was the lyrical and sonic weight of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, “Streetlife Serenade” and “Turnstiles” albums that hit me the hardest. After “The Stranger” and “52nd Street” albums came out in ‘ 77 and ‘ 78 I was definitely hooked. Unfortunately my excitement about Bill Joel ended with the release of “Glass Houses” in 1980. It seemed so weak, so thin. When “An Innocent Man” was released in ‘ 81 I thought he’d lost his mind. How could the man who wrote “Captain Jack” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” write “Uptown Girl”? Sure, it’s catchy…but so is small pox. Despite his later work, I was excited to see Billy with Elton John at the San Jose Arena last Sunday.
Perched in the second tier of seats I have the sensation that I’m floating over the performers. Billy and Elton are playing in the round, the audience wrapping behind them. Two pianos rise from the stage and Billy and Elton play a couple songs together before Elton kicks off the show. The audience is sitting in their seats but after a couple of up-tempo numbers they’re up and bobbing around. During “Crocodile Rock” the audience starts clapping…on the downbeat! Not everyone though, the others are clapping on the up beat. I haven’t seen an audience this white since I got free tickets to Phil Collins. After playing through a long string of hits, Elton launches into Billy’s hit single “Uptown Girl”. “I think Billy wrote that one for ex-wife number two” Elton says with a grin “I’ll ask Billy backstage if he doesn’t give me a black eye first.”
Next up is Billy Joe. In contrast to the goofy wholesomeness of Elton John’s Band, Billy Joel’s crew has modern urban feel. Two white female backup singers in tight leather, a black female percussionist and sax player in braids and a male hard body bass player with 18-inch biceps and leather pants. After playing “Anthony’s Song” and a brief instrumental version of ” Do You Know the Way to San Jose” Billy raps with the audience. He swivels around and points to the people behind him. “Well, you people over here are basically screwed… but hey, at least you get to look at my ass all night” Billy then informs us that their guitar roadie has a birthday today and they bring him onstage to sing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” while Billy plays guitar. The audiencegoes nuts! Who knew AC/DC was mainstream? Thing are perfect until Billy punishes us with a sluggish and sloppy version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I’m sorry, but that song is just stupid, period. On the plus side Elton didn’t play “Candle in the Wind”(either version) so it kind of balanced out.
To finish the night both bands are brought out and Elton and Billy play “Come Together” and “A Hard Day’s Night”. Can two piano players, two drummers, 3 backup singers, three guitarists, two bassists, two percussionists, a sax player and a keyboardist play together on time? Well, sort of. But I give them an “A” for effort. All in all, an unforgettable show.