I'm not a fan of outdoor concerts.
I have a couple of problems with the "open air" arrangement, but we'll get to that in a bit.
I am a fan of Wrigley Field. Being a Chicago native that grew up 2 miles north of the historic North side baseball park, I look for any reason to get my tail end parked in those grandstands. So, when I heard the Face 2 Face tour with rock legends Elton John and Billy Joel was coming to Wrigley, I was all over it.
Some of you might not consider the ticket price a factor in determining the quality of a show, but for me it is something that does have bearing on my final thoughts. And, with a monster production like this one, with two guys that wouldn't be doing it if the money wasn't there, you have to prepare yourself for ticket prices that will knock your wallet clear out of the park. My on-the-field, second-to-last-row center ticket was one of the pricier ones available, and it ran me a heart-stopping $175 (not including the numerous ridiculous fees that ran it up another $40). So, I think it's understandable that I expect a little more from this show than I do from the band that's playing the bar down the street for a $2 cover (including fees).
Now for my dislike of the outdoor, or "open air" shows&..
As I sat in my flimsy plastic folding chair at 7:00 awaiting the start of the show, it was as bright as it had been at noon. At 7:20, the intro music to the big show starts. Somehow, I was waiting for the intro music to come to an abrupt stop and the entire city go black around me as the crowd exploded. But of course, that didn't happen. For me, there is nothing like that rush when a band first hits the stage. When the house lights fade to black and the spotlights burst to life with the sounds of the band is something that is totally lost in the outdoor venue (unless the band comes on after dark, of course).
Have you ever noticed how many planes are in the sky? The amount of flights each day, just in Chicago alone, has to be astronomical. Or, take a look at the way a pigeon flies as opposed to, say, a hawk. I mean the hawk just glides; he barely even has to flap his wings. The pigeons on the other hand, at least those at Wrigley (maybe they're weighted down by stray peanuts), seem like they furiously flap those suckers nonstop. Yeah, I discovered this during the second song of the set, Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are." The surroundings are so alive and prominent in the outdoor arena, it really is quite bothersome to me. I don't want to see planes and pigeons; I want to focus on the stage and the music that's it nothing else. This show had folks texting and talking and snapping cutesy lovebird pictures all while Elton and Billy are pouring their hearts into the music. Aw heck, it's Wrigley Field though, for chrissakes. Don't be such a party-pooping snob. I know. I get it.
Okay, let me tell you about this show&.
The stage was beyond massive. It was almost as wide as the entire outfield area, with two video screens that acted as bookends. There was a screen in the center of the stage too, as well as lighting rigs jutting out from every crevice in between. A gigantic sheer tapestry with English landmarks was hoisted on the Elton side of the stage, while Billy had another of equal size that displayed iconic New York images. Behind these somewhat transparent screens were enormous towers of sound. Looking like a tribute to the fallen World Trade Center towers, these could have supplied the entire city with crystal clear sound. This was one of the best sounding shows I'd ever heard. I expected the sound to be soft and thin, but instead it was powerful, loud, and dynamic.
Billy Joel was the first to emerge from the right side of the stage, and seconds later Elton would crawl out from the left as two grand pianos rose from the floor. The two legends would meet at center stage, join hands, and raise them triumphantly in the air. They then exchanged a quick hug, settled on to their respective benches, and things were under way.
As the opening notes of John's "Your Song" gently poured out onto the field, I felt a bit like I had come home. I think both of these artists are extraordinary, but I have been a fan of Elton John since I was old enough to walk. I had seen Billy Joel before, and he was superb, but it was Elton that I was really looking forward to seeing on this night. Billy Joel would sing the first verse of "Your Song," and Elton the second, and so forth. They would do this throughout the first block of songs they performed together, which also included "Just The Way You Are," "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," and "My Life." This trading of vocal parts really worked nicely. I never realized just how similar their voices were, and each of them could still hold their own. Elton's high notes weren't always there, but I can say that I didn't expect them to be either.
After their joint effort, the piano on the right lowered into the floor of the stage, and Joel would step out to allow John a full solo set. Opening with "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," it was clear from the start that John would be featuring his band. In true 70's concert fashion, the set included many extended versions of the standard radio hits, as well as a full length exploration of the lesser known "Madman Across The Water," which had much of the crowd texting a friend or hitting the Port-O-Potty. There wasn't much dialogue to be had from the knighted Englishman, and when he did choose to speak to the 40,000+ fans, he sounded very uneasy. He basically told the crowd that there was "a lot of history" at Wrigley, and he dedicated "Tiny Dancer" to all the women in the house. I did look for "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" to shake things up, but the heaviest rock song of the Elton John catalog came across flat and sluggish, with the biting guitar riff barely nibbling my ear. John's piano talents were sharp as you might expect, but then again nothing overly spectacular was offered up either. "Levon" has always been one of my favorite Elton John songs, and it sounded excellent here, but the climax of the song was drawn out a bit too much. After finishing hits like "Philadelphia Freedom," and "I'm Still Standing," the latter of which was the strongest song in the set, he would pace the front of the stage looking a lot like a sequined Ozzy Osbourne, raising his fists in the air triumphantly. The set was well performed, but perhaps a little "over performed." The version of "Rocket Man" we heard went on for much too long, and "Madman Across The Water" slowed the set down tremendously. "Madman" is an excellent song, but maybe not the best choice for this production or perhaps an abbreviated version would've worked more efficiently. As John closed his set with a rousing version of "Crocodile Rock," he left the stage to give Joel his go at it.
Joel's set started with the pianist playing "Prelude," the intro to "Angry Young Man" like a young Jerry Lee Lewis; his hands moving in a feverish blur. After finishing his opening number he immediately began talking to the willing crowd, and swatting flies with the bright yellow swatter he kept on top of his piano. He talked about the first time he played Chicago in 1970, and even named some of the old clubs and the Chicago suburbs that housed them. He immediately felt like "one of us." He was instantly crowned as an honorary Chicagoan. After doing the hits "Movin' Out" and "Allentown," he introduced the song "Zanzibar." He acknowledged the fact that most would not know the song from the 52nd Street album, and comically informed us that these tracks used to be called "album cuts." He was correct in assuming that many would not know the tune, but he kept it sharp and under five or six minutes, so as not to lose the crowd. It was not only the tight playing of his band, which he took the time to introduce individually, (one member after each song), but it was the comfortable and friendly way he spoke with the crowd that made the Joel set a giant party. He playfully started a blues riff on the piano and started to sing a random blues tune, he started to do Sinatra's "My Kind Of Town" at one point, he made his piano turn and face another direction the guy was just having a ball. He even pointed out the fact that we paid dearly for the seats, and thanked everyone for giving him and his band a job. Nice.
Joel introduced "She's Always A Woman" as a song he wrote for his first wife. And, with Joel in the middle of divorcing his third wife, this brought on a hearty chuckle from everyone within earshot. After laying down the tune beautifully, he left the piano bench behind and strapped on a guitar. With some shuffling and apparent confusion, Joel announced that he was about to "go off the program." He even warned the sound guys that this was not in the plan. He then told us about his guitar tech, who is a Chicago native named Chainsaw, who has been with him for more than 30 years. He told us that Chainsaw was going to sing a "sacred" song. As guitar tech Chainsaw rushed out onto the stage with mic in hand, he asked the crowd if they were "ready to take it to the next level" when the familiar guitar riff for AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" kicked in. I thought to myself, this is the razor sharp guitar sound I was hoping for from "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" in John's set. As Chainsaw stomped back and forth across the stage screaming almost inaudibly, this was the highlight of the show for me. The party was in full tilt now, and Joel was the host with the most. Chainsaw sang like a rat in a trap, but that didn't matter. With everyone screaming the chorus of "Highway To Hell" at the top of their lungs, and huge smiles all over the park, this defined the entire spirit of the Billy Joel set. He was there to supply a good time, and to have a good time himself.
Joel ran through lively hits like "We Didn't Start The Fire," "Only The Good Die Young," and "It's Still Rock 'N' Roll To Me" featuring the talents of his band. Sax player Mark Rivera was excellent, as was his soulful backup singer/saxophonist/percussionist Crystal Taliefero. In the beginning of "It's Still Rock 'N' Roll To Me," as his band was playing the locomotive rhythm of the tune, Joel was busy playing with the mic stand and missed the first couple words of the song. But somehow, this mistake was acceptable, just because it felt so good to watch him having a good time.
As both pianos rose to the surface once again, the energy level was significantly lifted for a final set featuring both of these musical masters. With Joel stretched out across his instrument, and John with one foot up on his, the two began an energetic closing set that really thrilled. "The Bitch Is Back" was tremendous, with total crowd participation and Joel's blaring horn section. Joel then told a story about Elton throwing him a party just after his divorce with second wife, Christie Brinkley. The two then, of course, went into "Uptown Girl," which Joel wrote for wife #2. A raucous version of "Bennie & The Jets," and a poignant "Candle In The Wind" followed, only to be capped off by a stirring rendition of Joel's signature song, "Piano Man." With what sounded like the entire city of Chicago singing the refrain a capella, any doubts about "Piano Man" being one of the greatest songs ever written were removed.
Let's look over some of the facts of this very special concert.
Elton John gave a good performance of some of classic rock's greatest songs. At the age of 62, he still plays wonderfully, and still has some vocal ability left. Billy Joel gave a fantastic performance of some of classic rock's greatest songs. And at the age of 60 he still has tremendous playing skills and a great deal of vocal power left in him. But most of all, he still knows how to have fun. Both of these rock legends performing together was pretty magical, especially surrounded by the majesty that is Wrigley Field.
I don't know about a Grand Slam, but this one was definitely good for a three-run homer.
1. Your Song
2. Just the Way You Are
John/Joel with bands
3. Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me
4. My Life
Elton John set
5. Funeral For a Friend
6. Love Lies Bleeding
7. Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)
9. Madman Across The Water
10. Tiny Dancer
11. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
13. Rocket Man
14. Philadelphia Freedom
15. I'm Still Standing
16. Crocodile Rock
Billy Joel set
18. Angry Young Man
19. Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
22. Don't Ask Me Why
23. She's Always a Woman
24. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
25. River of Dreams
26. Highway to Hell (sung by guitar tech Chainsaw)
27. We Didn't Start the Fire
28. It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me
29. Only the Good Die Young
John/Joel with bands
30. I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues
31. Uptown Girl
32. The Bitch is Back
33. You May be Right
34. Bennie and the Jets
35. Candle in the Wind
36. Piano Man