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John Lamb, Published May 03 2009

Concert review: Joel, John play off each other brilliantly

With more than 30 years of hits respectively, it must be kind of daunting for Elton John and Billy Joel to figure out a set list. The simple answer would be a predictable greatest-hits show, but that would be too predictable.

The two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers played the oldies, the goodies and a few overlooked gems when they sat down at their pianos Saturday night at the Fargodome. Even when they played the expected numbers, there were some surprises.

Who thought the pair would open with ballads? Swapping verses on John’s first hit, 1970’s “Your Song” and Joel’s first big hit, 1977’s “Just the Way You Are,” they could’ve just as easily been dedications to each other as peers or odes to their fans. It would’ve made for a great finale, but it was a beautiful opener.

They continued alternating two more songs before Joel exited the stage just 20 minutes into the show, setting up a solo segment for John.

If there was a theme to the night, it seemed to be “I Love the ’70s.” With no new records to promote, each artist opened up the vaults. John didn’t really touch the ’80s until “I’m Still Standing” near the end of his set.

John’s voice has changed quite a bit through the years. Instead of easily singing falsetto, he’s now deeper, richer and more soulful, which showed on “Levon.” Perhaps with that in mind, he asked for the crowd to help out by singing along with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and let them take the chorus for “Crocodile Rock.”

He could’ve used help again hitting the high notes on “Rocket Man,” but he quickly adjusted.

The first direct address to the crowd was John saying he wasn’t sure the show would happen, a reference to this spring’s floods. (The musicians gave 2,000 tickets to flood fighters.)

“I’m so glad everything turned out well for you guys,” he said before playing “Burn Down the Mission” and “Madman Across the Water.”

He returned to better-known songs, dedicating “Tiny Dancer” to the ladies. What a player.

While John is quite the showman, he was shown up by Joel, who opened his set with the intense oldies “Angry Young Man” and “Moving Out.”

Joel’s set was loose – he seemed as comfortable playing in front of the roughly 20,000 in attendance as he would’ve in a club 30-some years ago. Even though he appeared to be fighting a cold (he joked about having swine flu), he turned in an electrifying set, even if he seemed tired at the end.

Joel joked a lot, especially before the very ’70s-sounding “Zanzibar.” He even made the hissing and popping sounds in “Allentown.”

He also referred to the flood, suggesting Fargo could appreciate “River of Dreams,” which featured a bluesy interlude with a reference to sandbagging and the line “Fargo, you’re my home.”

Joel left the piano to strap on a guitar for the history lesson, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” while corresponding images from the lyrics flashed on the screen above the stage. He even did an impressive bit of microphone stand-twirling during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

Joel must’ve inspired John, who returned fully charged for an electrifying “The Bitch Is Back,” during which he stood on his piano, mugged for the crowd and got the crowd pumped for Joel’s pummeling “You May Be Right.”

Apparently neither star had a problem with their fans standing and dancing, like a certain classic rock band did at a recent dome show. At 10:50 p.m., after three hours of music, fans on the packed floor stood and danced for “Bennie and the Jets,” while the piano men traded solos on the ivory.

As for Joel’s anthem “Piano Man,” you knew they’d play it, but not before a duet on “Candle in the Wind,” which suffered from some unfortunate sound problems.

Once Joel played the refrain on his harmonica, everyone who hadn’t already lost their voice cheered and sang along. The only bigger shout was when John sang, “You’ve been a pretty good crowd for a Saturday.” The crowd returned the favor singing the chorus.

Sometimes predictable sounds pretty sweet.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533