Thick, slow moving ropes of people advance baby steps at a time into the front gates of the Kohl Center. It's 7:00 Thursday night. The sun has it's hot on, the first of the season and for once, or at least for the first time since last September, bare arms and midriffs are just right. The crowds are music rowdy, not football Saturday rowdy. Some people sport antique Billy Joel and Elton John concert t-shirts. People of all ages, all sizes, one color. White.
The southeast dorms tower overhead. A thousand windows. Those same windows aimed speakers to the street in the late '70's blaring "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" while some frosh named Kenny had his ship come in with a girl from Pardeeville on the lower bunk. Now, thirty years later, Captain Fantastic plays across Dayton Street together with the second biggest hero in all of piano rock (okay third counting Jerry Lee) Billy Joel. Joel was responsible for more than a few bumps in the night in those dorms himself. Some of those people are here tonight. Maybe even Kenny. 15,000 of them.
Joel and John are unlikely sparring partners. But there they are, the noses of their cruise ship-sized grand pianos touching with a healthy amount of eroticism. The artists at either end bounce like prize fighters atop black padded stools. They begin the program together. In a fun twist they trade lyrics to each others songs. Elton sings most of "Just the Way You Are" so that when Joel finally chimes in on a verse it's a sweet payoff. The pianos are over modulated during the first several songs. They sound like cheap electronic keyboards instead of pianos the size of ranch homes. The voices are incredibly husky. Both men are solid and huge, like boulders on the stage. Hulking, broad shouldered. They lurch at "Just the Way You Are" like the song is a tackling dummy.
Things settle down, pianos in their proper acoustic voice, for "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." Band members appear from everywhere, out of the dark, ascending steep, grated metal steps. One percussionist looks trapped forever behind 26 pieces of drums and cymbals. Joel and John do a half dozen songs together before splitting off for individual, back-to-back sets.
"My Life" gets the fists pumping. Elton's hair plugs look fantastic. He looks fantastic, resplendent in two-toned red buckskin shoes, a long tailed sequined top coat over a blood red dress shirt. Joel looks like a black-suited New York pall bearer at a mafia funeral. Tight and tucked. Flashing red neck tie. When Joel leaves the stage Elton opens the bomb doors and lets loose with "Love Lies Bleeding." Davey Johnstone, his long time guitarist and musical director, bends his B string almost to the breaking point, turning notes into sirens.
I saw Johnstone in John's band when I was 18. And now I get a text message from my daughter Maggie, 18 years old. "It's great!" she writes. She took the photos for this story. There are generations sitting together everywhere you look. The crowd stays seated almost the whole night, rising only to applaud at the end of selected tunes.
Elton comes out and dances during "Saturday Night's Alright." I'm told he flies in and out from his home base in Atlanta now for each show. The same night. He still punches the clock just as hard as he used to, though. People remember his costuming from back in the day more than anything else. I think that's too bad. What I remember is that he and Johnstone and the band played every single song like it was the last tune they'd ever perform. There's still some of that audacity in their show now.
And there's his voice. Supple during Tiny Dancer. Howling wildly during "Crocodile Rock." Johnstone took a seat to strum his acoustic during John's meaty rendition of "Daniel." The opening phrases of "Rocket Man" got everyone to their feet, finally. Everywhere in the arena arms, some young and tattooed, some gray-haired and mottled, drape across the shoulders of their chosen ones. Johnstone's slide work on a Les Paul gooses the song. For John there must be a temptation to turn songs like "Rocket Man" from a soulful, torch song into a screaming anthem. He resists.
By the time John pounds into "Levon," the Kohl Center has turned into the nation's largest karaoke bar. Old dudes who look like they refinance houses for a living mouth the words and strike out air cymbals at just the right time.
Billy Joel's set matches the energy and crowd favor of John's. Joel's however is a good 30 decibels louder. "Movin' Out" showcases Joel's own intact voice but it's also a showcase for his band. Joel praises his individual band members all along the way. John never mentioned his. During "Allentown" Joels piano rotates 360 degrees in an arena rock version of some smaller, cheesier, piano venue he must have played years ago. He calls "Zanzibar" an "album cut," in the vernacular of 70s and 80s LP production. "Not a hit. An album cut." Joel is a more muscular pianist than John and "Allentown" is filled with his flashy fist banging in the lower register.
But he can play trills and rolls. He gently lays those down during "Always a Woman to Me." The whooping chorus to "Italian Restaurant" was the one of the most joyful moments of the night. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" came across like cold pizza. "Only the Good Die Young" cooked.
The show ended with the two veterans playing together again. "The Bitch is Back" was a blistering, extended jam. Something about Elton John spitting the word "bitch" makes it so feral. "Benny and the Jets" rocked so loud and hard that I'm pretty sure Kenny and the girl from Pardeeville got some of it on the seventh floor of Witte Hall.