Don’t Miss the Rocket Man and the Piano Man

What happens when the pianos stop playing?

Ever since I was a kid in the 1970’s and realized in an increasingly osmosis-like way that I liked music a lot, for some reason I used to wonder, “What will it feel like when these bands that I like stop playing music some day?”

It was an innocent thought at that young age, but in a way it stuck with me in the back of my mind all these years as all of the musicians that I like from the 1970’s are now reaching deeper into their 70’s and 80’s. As they hit those higher age numbers, one by one they’re retiring from music. The end of an era, for sure. Some of them will go out with big bang final tours, and others just drift out of the limelight…still playing well but seemingly tiring from the rigors of concert touring. In either case, they consider their musical legacies complete.

I vividly remember hearing songs from the Eagles, Elton John, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc coming out of the bedrooms of my older sisters in the early to mid 70’s, as well as my dad’s large and loud stereo in our living room. Classic albums Like Hotel California, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Stranger, Rumors, Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, and Sticky Fingers.

These are truly great rock bands and albums, timeless music with excellent storytelling and songwriting that have stood the test of time with the legions of fans they’ve built up over the decades. In many cases, their fan bases are actually growing even now as parents introduce their kids to this great music. Just look on YouTube at the recent shows of some of these bands (all of which are still playing except for Zep and Floyd) and you’ll see plenty of smiling 20 and 30-something faces discovering this music (and spending a lot of money to be there!). It explains why those albums are some of the largest selling in music history.

As every generation of music lover will say at some point in their life “They don’t make music like they used to”. We all do a double take when we say it and realize “I sound just like my parents!” I’m definitely at that moment in time now. A lot (but not all) of the pop and rock music that I hear today just doesn’t seem to be at the same level of songwriting as those bands from the 70’s. The hooks and catch-phrases are often there, but much of it just doesn’t seem to have the same staying power (with me) of the music from back in the day (yes, I just said “back in the day” lol). Some of those classic albums mentioned above were at the top of the charts for 20+ weeks at a time. Or in the case of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, it spent many years on the charts!

Catch the music now…while you can

With those thoughts in mind, over the past few years I’ve been spending admittedly exorbitant amounts of money for good seats to see some of these bands on what will be their “final world tours”, either overtly designated as such or to which you can reach that logical conclusion. I mean, really, how many more years are Mick and Keith going to be able to pull off energetic multi-hour shows to stadiums of 70,000 people and still sound great doing it. The Stones, by the way, do sound great on their current stadium tour, which is the key thing to me. I wouldn’t spend the money to see any of these shows if the bands weren’t in top form. It’s just too expensive to see an artist underperforming while reaching for things that are no longer possible.

The most recent artists I couldn’t resist seeing one more time are Elton John on his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour and Billy Joel during his multi-year residency at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I’ve also recently seen Genesis on their “Last Domino” tour (they’re now permanently disbanded), and the Black Crowes on their “Shake Your Money Maker” anniversary tour. Lots of great stuff at these shows!

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Elton John and/or Billy Joel if they play in a city near you on their current tours. In addition to his New York City residency, Joel is doing some stadium shows this summer.

Elton John’s farewell is grand at Nassau Coliseum

We saw Elton John at Nassau Coliseum in New York on March 6, 2022 in one of the final arena shows on his massive multi-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. The show was sold out, and after those arena shows he’s now doing a limited run of stadium shows and then that’s it for him. (which is why I’m posting this now, to encourage anyone who wants to see him to do it now before he’s gone for good)

The show we saw started at 8:00 pm sharp. Gone are the days when artists would drift onto the stage 45 minutes after their listed start time. Over the years many local noise and post-concert traffic ordinances have been put in place near arenas and stadiums that put an end to that. My humorous guess is that there’s also a lot less backstage hanging out and partying going on these days for these guys, so they want to get on with it when show time hits.

I happened to be standing in line for beer when they started slowly lowering the upper house lights in the arena at 7:55 to signal people to get to their seats. I heard the roar of the crowd start to rise, so I quickly paid and made my way around the corner to our seats just in time for the arena to go full lights-out and hear the opening note piano bang of “Bennie and the Jets”. Whew! That was a close one…

It was clear right from the beginning that Elton’s voice was strong and steady, and the band was right on. Part of the reason for the tightness of the band is the inclusion of long time members Davey Johnstone (guitars, backing vocals) and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). They’ve been with Elton’s band for decades and are as tight as can be as a musical unit.

At 75 years old, and with some hip/leg problems, Elton doesn’t bombastically bounce around the stage and do things like jump off his piano like he used to. The show is less dynamic than it used to be because of that, but that didn’t diminish his vocals or the band’s music at all. He hit the notes and played wonderfully.

A trend I’ve noticed on YouTube lately is a lot more recording and posting of entire concerts online, so I won’t go through a song by song review of the concert when you can easily find any recent show and see plenty of video for it to listen and see for yourself. I’ve even found some people who apparently go into these shows with the intent to film them with multiple people, and then they edit together and post full multi-camera amateur recordings of the shows. Some of them are quite good!

What I will say though is that concert sound systems these days have reached such a high state of the art that you can hear everything very well from probably anywhere in the arena. The piano was clear and present, the vocals were clear and strong, and the band was in perfect balance. Another great thing is that concert volumes for most of the shows I’ve seen recently (the Black Crowes being an exception) have come way down. This is good because it leaves your ears pain and damage free, there’s much less sound distortion, and you can hear everything clearer. Lower volumes are a win/win for everyone.

The light and video show was well done and creative, unlike some of the cookie-cutter light shows I’ve occasionally seen over the years. These old classic rock bands with ample money in their bank accounts spend it well on good sound, lights and video.

In Elton’s case, the only thing I didn’t like was the video being used for the first two or three songs of the show. For whatever reason, it just seemed to be pure filler video that had nothing to do with the songs being played, they didn’t show the band on the screens, etc, which was quite silly. After that point though, the video snapped into thematic step with the music and was fine through the rest of the show.

Any concert will have its standout songs…the foundational greats that always get played, are fan favorites, and seem to get a little extra attention from the production crew to raise up the presentation. For this concert, those songs for me were:

  • “Rocket Man” – It was stunning, with a beautiful piano interlude in the middle that had everyone rapt.
  • “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me – Two of my personal favorites.
  • “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” – That great long intro got all the attention, lights, fog machines, and grand sound system that it deserves
  • …and then of course the “energy songs” including “The Bitch is Back”, “Crocodile Rock”, and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” where the lights, crowd response, and dancing at the seats were elevated to the next level

The set list and a few of my photos from the show are below.

The stage backdrop at Nassau Coliseum

This was a great show, and a classy way for Elton John to say farewell while he’s still singing and playing so well. The crowd was roaring the whole night, and in fact the people on the floor stood up the entire show. If you go to see one of his final concerts, enjoy the end of this era.

Billy Joel delights at Madison Square Garden

In a similar way to Elton John, Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 2022 did not disappoint. The 26-song set list left the Garden fans cheering for more when it was over, as this show was added to the record-breaking total number of times Billy has played at the Garden in his entire career.

Joel signed a deal with Madison Square Garden in 2014 to become what back then was called a “franchise artist”, and agreed to play one show per month at the Garden for the foreseeable future as long as ticket demand remains strong. Well, ticket demand for the past eight years has remained very strong indeed, with all of the shows selling out! So he keeps on playing, over 100 shows in total at MSG over his full career, and counting!

One of the things that made this show special for me was that it was the first time my college-aged kids have been to see a big name artist at a famous arena like MSG. Not bad for a first time! This goes back to what I wrote above about connecting these artists to new generations. While my kids didn’t know all of the songs played, they at least had heard many of them through me playing them around the house and on car drives. They enjoyed the show, got a good taste of what a big time rock concert is like, and can carry the memory of the shared experience as a family forward with them forever. A successful night indeed!

As with Elton John, Billy Joel at 70+ years and counting is slowing down a little bit. He doesn’t jump off his piano anymore either, and doesn’t dance and get around in the spritely way that he used to in his prime touring days. But just his presence on stage and the engaging show he delivered kept the audience’s full attention for sure, so the age-related limitations were of no concern.

My comments about the quality of the lights and sound for Elton John also apply to Billy Joel. The one thing that I didn’t like about Joel’s show is that he sold the seats behind the stage, which always limits what an artist can do with video because typically a huge video screen would be hung back there to be used during the show for videos and live shots. Consequently, Joel’s video usage was limited to much smaller and higher video screens that didn’t block the view of those fans back there. As a result, I didn’t feel like the video was integrated into the concert as much as it usually would be, and was therefore used to lesser effect. For the people sitting in the back seats of the arena or stadium that rely on the large video screens to see what’s happening on stage, this was probably a painful thing. I think the visual creativity of Joel’s show suffered a little bit because of this, but it’s a matter of personal preference. Some people like to see the audience behind the stage because it adds more movement and energy back there, but I prefer to have the video screens and deeper engagement in the overall presentation.

I really enjoyed this show (which I’ve seen before a few years ago) not only because I’m a big Bill Joel fan, but also because I was able to share this great event with my kids. While I like Elton John a lot too, I find Joel’s lyrics (and perhaps his music too) to be more accessible and relatable. The standout songs for me from this show included:

  • “Miami 2017” – Great, high energy way to open the show, and the references to New York in the song lyrics pulled the crowd in from this first song forward through the rest of the night. I’m glad I wasn’t on the beer line for the start of this one!
  • “The Entertainer” – That he is! It was a good follow up to “Miami 2017” to keep the opening shot of songs rolling.
  • “The Downeaster Alexa” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” – I like these songs not only for their unique music but for their storytelling as well.
  • “She’s Always a Woman” – A classic Billy Joel ballad, interesting sentiment and lyrics, smooth music.
  • “Only The Good Die Young” – I grew up with this coming of age song, so seeing it live and hearing the crowd sing in certain sections was fun.
  • …and then all of the high octane classic rockers (really, is there ANYONE who doesn’t like these songs?) – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Big Shot”, “You May Be Right”. It doesn’t get much better than this multi-song punch to end a great show.

You’ll notice I didn’t list “Piano Man” as one of my favorites. Yikes! Is it Billy Joel sacrilege to say that? It’s just not one of my favorite songs, but I can say this…it was to the rest of Madison Square Garden on this and probably every night he plays that song. I’m mentioning it because this song brought the audience together into a giant sing along that went mostly through the whole song. Search it on YouTube and you can plug into the crowd’s energy, which was nice to see.

The show was interrupted for a few minutes early on by two players from the New York Rangers hockey team, who joined Billy on stage for a commemorative moment. They made an announcement that it was Billy’s 80th consecutive concert at the Garden, and they raised a banner to the ceiling of the arena to recognize the historic moment. It was neat to see that, and of course the crowd gave the moment a big roar.

Nobody knows how long Billy will continue with these shows at Madison Square Garden, so if you’re at all interested I would recommend catching him now while he’s in strong form and additional shows are still being added. Or, you can catch one of the few stadium shows that he’s doing this summer. Either way, it’s a night of great classic music that shouldn’t be missed.

The set list and some of my photos from the show are below.

The options for seeing Billy Joel are more limited than Elton John, since Joel typically only plays once a month at MSG in NYC. But if you’re looking for an excuse to take a long getaway in New York City with a fun show to go with it, buy into a Billy Joel concert. You won’t be disappointed!

Goodbye guys…

So what’s the answer to the question from my childhood in the first paragraph about how it would feel when these bands stop playing completely? Honestly, it feels a bit weird. It will be even weirder as some of them pass away in their later years, like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones recently. I love the Stones, so with Charlie’s death and the age of all the remaining members, it probably won’t be long before they call it quits after 60+ years. They better come back to the U.S. one more time before then though!

I’ve seen some of these bands in concert multiple times over the years with many good memories attached to each event, and their music has filled my ears for most of my life. It’s just like the old adage says, that this music is “the soundtrack of your life”. For me, it truly is.

So I say goodbye to Elton John and Billy Joel. Their concert days might be coming to a close soon, but their music will always stay with me and the millions of other fans to be enjoyed through headphones and speakers for many years to come.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Miss the Rocket Man and the Piano Man

  1. laura bruno lilly June 30, 2022 / 7:53 pm

    Excellent ‘review’, commentary, observations and personal ruminations, John. I relate. While I appreciate Billy Joel, (in fact a CG collegue grew up with him and played in a high school band with him) I much more like Elton John. Just sayin’..
    And what he did in his later years for others (case in point, Leon Russell’s come back before he passed away) endeared me to him as a person. Hubby loved Leon, I was a bit ambivelant back in the day, but we did manage to see him in one of his later concerts and it was the best.
    The day the greats stop playing? Well, they live on in their body of work – like Coltrane, Segovia, Berlioz, the Beatles, and new generations re-discover them anew!
    😎

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John June 30, 2022 / 8:23 pm

    Hi Laura…Yeah, I hesitated to even put that comment in about liking Billy Joel a bit more than Elton John, because ask me on a different day and I might have a different answer. 🙂

    Yes, Elton’s humanities side and generosity have been terrific over the years. A good heart, for sure.

    In an interview I saw today with Elton, he was asked “Are you looking forward to the end of the huge tour?” (which doesn’t end until 2023!), and he bluntly and honestly said yes, that he’s been on the road his whole life and doesn’t crave the applause anymore, he’s 75, and he wants to stay home and spend time with his family and do something else with his life now. So he’s making an honest exit in top form after a long and fulfilling career. Great way to go out…on his own terms. A lot of people don’t get to do that…

    Liked by 1 person

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