Review and request: Elton & Billy were good, but McCartney would top them both

July 24, 2009

Three legends, two ballparks. Too old to rock and roll? Though it can probably be heard playing in bars all around Wrigleyville somewhere near closing time, there was something magical about hearing Billy Joel and Elton John together perform "Piano Man" at beautiful Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.

The duo did a pair of shows at the old ballpark as part of their Face to Face tour. Over the course of three-plus hours, John and Joel performed a number of songs together in opening and closing sets, trading off lead vocals and piano licks. Each also performed a separate set with his own band.

Throughout the night, John sang in a much deeper voice than is heard on the originals, experimenting with his vocal phrasing and rhythm. Perhaps it was a change necessitated by time and age, but it was effective, nonetheless. John's interaction with the crowd was pretty much limited to his music, with the performer offering little more than waves and blown kisses as he rose from his piano between songs. Joel's performance was a little more lively, with the piano man even strapping on a guitar while a member of his road crew from the Chicago area was brought out to perform "Highway to Hell" to the delight of the 40,000-plus fans at Wrigley.

In addition to the dueling pianists, Jimmy Buffet, the Police, and Rascal Flatts are among the artists who have performed at the home of the Chicago Cubs in recent years. For my money, the Friendly Confines would be a perfect venue for Sir Paul McCartney.

mccartney-citifieldAs a Beatles fan born after the band broke-up, I've taken every opportunity available to see Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr perform.

Both, along with the likes of John and Joel, not to mention the Rolling Stones, are entering uncharted territory as aging rock stars. Can you still be a legitimate rocker when you're 60? 70? Perhaps not everyone can, but last weekend in New York City, McCartney defied all reasonable expectations of any 67-year old, thumping his bass, ripping off screaming guitar solos, and singing in a strong and powerful voice, not too different from the one heard on all those Beatles hits from the 1960's.

I was lucky enough to catch his Saturday night performance, one of three New York concerts on his mini-tour. For about two hours and 45 minutes, McCartney stormed through 35 songs, never leaving the stage, taking a break, or sitting down, except to play piano on a handful of numbers. He never appeared to take a sip of water. He left stage for maybe two minutes, probably less, before coming out for his two encores. He performed a few numbers alone on stage, just him and his acoustic guitar. His band members half his age had it easier than Sir Paul. McCartney became visibly and audibly choked up during "Here Today," a tribute song to his departed songwriting partner, John Lennon.

After so many years and so many concerts, seeing a performer so emotionally connected to his songs was impressive, to say the least. In the stands, many of his contemporaries--you know, the ones who ruined the Beatles experience for the Beatles by shrieking their way through concerts, making the music nearly inaudible--are now the ones shouting at younger fans standing and dancing to sit down. In fact, it was mostly the fans born after the Beatles break-up who seemed most enthusiastic about the show and most likely to have heard McCartney's recent release by his alter-ego, The Fireman, from which he played two songs.

On Friday night, Joel joined McCartney on stage in New York to help open the Mets new stadium, Citi Field. The Beatles gave the Mets old ballpark, Shea Stadium, its rock and roll baptism in 1965. Joel performed Shea's last concert, with McCartney joining him at the show last year. McCartney, Joel, and John are all legitimately viewed as legends. Some would call them geniuses. They continue to fill stadiums and delight audiences, but the inevitable question is how much longer can they go?

For McCartney, the end seems to be nowhere in sight. As he finished the old Beatles' hit "Paperback Writer" with a heavy, virtual punk rock coda, it seemed to the audience at Citi Field that we weren't just in the midst of greatness, we were viewing a freak of nature. His energetic performances and fresh takes on the old classics was something to behold. So if Wrigley Field organizers are still deciding on acts to top Elton/Billy for next year, put McCartney at the top of your list. That and a left-handed starter.

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