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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Elton, Billy: Hours of Hits but Not a Risk

March 24, 1995|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

SAN DIEGO — First we had the Three Tenors.

Now we've got the Two Piano Men.

Elton John and Billy Joel.

Similar stadium setting, circus atmosphere and audience worship.

Similar critical reservations.

If you measure pop excellence by hits alone, Wednesday's festive concert at the sold-out Jack Murphy Stadium here was a knockout. During the 3 1/2-hour program, pop's Rocket Man and Piano Man served up enough Top 40 hits to stock a jukebox.

If you lean toward artistic challenge and growth, however, the results were less overwhelming. The freshness was limited to staging and format.

Like last year's Three Tenors affair at Dodger Stadium, the concert had the feel of an international summit meeting. Huge piano keys were painted across the floor of the stage, one side of which was decorated with a massive U.S. flag, the other with an equally giant Union Jack.

At the outset, Joel, a Long Island native, walked the length of the stage to the strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," coming to rest under the Stars and Stripes. He then watched Englishman John walk onstage and head over to the Union Jack.

As they faced each other from opposite ends of the stage, you didn't know whether these two fiercely competitive rivals in the '70s and '80s were about to face off in a duel or slip into a duet. It turned out to be the latter.

Rather than a case of dueling pianos, which would have certainly given the evening an element of tension, the show took the form of a mutual admiration society. Unlike most star pairings, where each act simply does an independent set and heads home, the emphasis was on interaction.

Using TelePrompTers to guard against forgetting a lyric, John and Joel joined for duets on a dozen numbers, from John's intimate "Your Song" to Joel's pugnacious "My Life."

They also reached into each other's repertoire during their separate, hourlong sets. John chose Joel's moody "New York State of Mind," while Joel turned to John's sweeping "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Backed by his five-piece band, John focused during his own set on material from the '70s, moving from Top 10 hits such as the driving "Philadelphia Freedom" to celebrated album tracks, including the vigorous "Take Me to the Pilot."

In his solo turn, Joel and band mixed songs from his last two albums, including "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "The River of Dreams," with signature material, from 1977's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" to 1982's "Allentown."

As at the Tenors' show, the crowd cheered everything lovingly. Most of the 54,000 weren't just enchanted by the music but were under the spell of the veteran performers. In some ways, the most noteworthy thing about this tour isn't the music but the box-office punch. Talk about your dynamic duos . . .

In just 21 stadium shows last year, John and Joel grossed $47.7 million, making it one of the 10 biggest U.S. tours in pop history. By comparison, Lollapalooza, the celebrated alternative-rock revue, took in only $26.7 million last year in 43 dates.

And the money keeps on rolling in. Wednesday's gross was $2.4 million--the highest ever in San Diego for a reserved-seat show. With those figures, you can imagine pop managers and agents trying to figure out what other teamings might work.

For all its appeal, however, the John-Joel tour raises the question of whether the pairings are healthy for pop music. As with the Tenors, the event was more sideshow than artistic statement. None of the duets were especially revealing, and the absence of new material was disappointing.

The balance between satisfying an audience's thirst for old favorites and challenging them with new material is always a delicate one, but the weight Wednesday was too much on the side of the familiar.

That was unfortunate, because both artists seem to be going through important transitions. John, whose music over the years has shown far more artistic vision than Joel's, has just released his most personal and satisfying album since the '70s, and it's too bad he couldn't have found time for two or three of the new numbers instead of pushing the jukebox button one more time for "Bennie and the Jets."

Joel, who has tended to be so heavy-handed as a singer and writer over the years that he stands as the Oliver Stone of pop, was widely heralded by critics for greater maturity in his last album, and it would have been good Wednesday to continue that momentum by previewing a strong new song or two.

At least there are no apparent plans for a live album. So we don't have to worry about one more link with the Tenors: a Grammy nomination.

* Elton John and Billy Joel perform tonight and Saturday at the Grand Garden Arena of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, 8 p.m. Some single tickets available, $50-$200. (702) 891-1111.

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