TAMPA — Elton John and Billy Joel would have made darn good cowboys. After all, you just know Sir Elton owns the leather chaps to pull off the tumbleweed connection. And as for Billy the Kid, he's always carried himself like a dusty, crusty loner, moseying from outpost to post.
But more than that, as John, 61, and Joel, 59, brought their long-running, money-gobbling Face 2 Face tour to the St. Pete Times Forum Thursday, there was also a wistful Wild West vibe to the double bill. It was two dueling piano players shutting down a sepia-toned saloon, the kind of pop joint that is slowly, sadly becoming extinct.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 20,898 gray-templed fans (recession? what recession?), the icons started the three-hour show onstage together, baby grand against baby grand, the instruments raising from beneath the stage like glorious spacecraft.
Their first duet: Elton's Your Song. Next up? Billy's Honesty. At the start, it was just the two of 'em, playing, trading verses, their voices still sturdy, but substituting high notes for grizzled defiant growls. Slowly, their bandmates started to show, and the duets became louder, larger: the Brit's majestic Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the Yank's My Life, which lifted the crowd on its feet, where it would pretty much stay.
Their together time was so robust, so fun, you feared a drop in energy once Joel bid adieu and Elton started his solo set. But Reg struck back, opening his 11-song turn with the prog-poppy Funeral for a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding, his pudgy Vienna-sausage digits flying over the keys.
John could have tried half as hard and thrilled the throngs. But he kindly dusted off diehard gems Burn Down the Mission and Madman Across the Water. Even a well-worn hit such as Rocket Man was juiced and extended with an awesome, echoing coda. ("And all this science, I don't understand. It's just my job, five days a week." Bless you, Bernie Taupin.)
Joel was equally vigorous, opening with the take-that sprint of Angry Young Man. He was also more playful, injecting his cohort's Take Me to the Pilot into his own River of Dreams. There were a couple of duds in his setlist (We Didn't Start the Fire, not cool). But he made sure to sprinkle some of his own deep cuts (Zanzibar, very cool) amid Scenes From an Italian Restaurant and It's Still Rock and Roll to Me.
For the encore, the boys were together again, hamming up John's The Bitch Is Back, then Joel's You May Be Right. In a slick piano showdown, they went after each other on Bennie and the Jets, before tearing off the Beatles' Yer Birthday and Back in the U.S.S.R.
Their backing bands cleared out for Candle in the Wind, and then — you knew it was coming — Piano Man. John and Joel smiled and roared and played, trusty ol' cowboys firing away, until all the bullets were spent.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.