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July 28, 2014

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AARP’s Joel and John: Still rock ‘n’ roll to us

Aging is a beautiful thing.

Meat on the bones. Smarts in the brain. Depth of the heart. An AARP card.

And if the fan base at Saturday night's Billy Joel-Elton John re-teaming at the MGM Grand Garden Arena largely constituted the Revenge of the Widening Hips and Sagging Breasts Brigade, well, more power to us. This was the baby boom in bloom.

To hell with the looming Grammys, to Britney and Christina's Attack of the Teeny-Tarts, to Eminem's compost-as-art. There was something warmly reassuring about a couple seated behind this reviewer debating the musical merits of Neil Diamond as the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" and Martha and the Vandellas' "Jimmy Mack" blared, pre-show, over the loudspeakers. This was, blessedly, a Mosh-Free Zone. (It would only inflame our lumbago.)

There were no Ensure-Viagra cocktails at the concession stands, but plenty of beer -- the mood-altering substance of choice among a crowd peppered with sport coats, ties, gray hair and high foreheads.

And the boys on the marquee? The Felix and Oscar of the pop-rocking chair set?

If, as a poet observed, working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack, then there were surely double coronaries backstage.

This pairing is pure genius, a marriage of giants who defined a generation's music from polar extremes -- a Long Island pug and a London glam-ham -- and combined to put out more hits than John Gotti ever dreamed of.

In a four-hour filibuster that was sliced into quarters -- John and Joel, then John, then Joel, then John and Joel -- the duo debuted while twin pianos rose from the bowels of the stage to flank it, Joel entering to the strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," John to the British anthem. A roar worthy of the 'N Sync crowd welled up and rolled over the crowd like a wave, breaking at the stage. (Hey, we've still got it.)

Joel was in basic black, John in a subdued (for him) powder-blue, rhinestone-dappled jacket.

In a neat conceit on the duets, each belted out the opening choruses of each other's hits, Joel on John's "Your Song," John on Joel's "Just the Way You Are," the latter announced by Joel as having been penned for his first wife and throwing off an amusing gee-whiz shrug at the line, "I will love you, that's forever." The haunting "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" closed out the opening salvo, as Joel faded into the wings and John tackled a 90-minute solo set that huffed and puffed and blew this house down.

From the echoing refrain of someone saved, someone saved, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (sugar bear) to the silly but dance-happy confection, "Philadelphia Freedom," this was Iron John, fanning a ferocious fire under a crowd that, at the start, sported only the stray lighter, light saber or waving arm and wound up going full-bore bananas. John performs with the vengeance of a man who still owns the charts -- and in the charts of our classic album collections, he still does.

Every distinctive piano intro triggered an avalanche of approval. Among the highlights: "Rocket Man," "Tiny Dancer," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Sad Songs (Say So Much)" (which is anything but sad), "I'm Still Standing" (which could double not only as his anthem, but the rallying cry of this generation) and "Uptown Girl" (his tribute to Joel). By now, the crowd was on its feet (the beers had kicked in) and stayed that way as the carny-style starter chords announced "Crocodile Rock" (let's hear it now: "Laaaaa-la-la-la-la-laaaa") and segued feverishly into Sa-tur-day, Sa-tur-day, "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting."

Though John tore through his set with laser-like intensity, Joel added a touch of Vegas shtick, gently elbowing the town in the ribs, right down to Elvis impersonations (he's not bad) and cheeky lounge-lizard piano riffs on "Mack the Knife" and "Lady is a Tramp." And while John was stationary at the keyboard, Joel prowled the stage, shadow-boxing with the mike stand, mimicking Marlon Brando and cracking wise. A more varied approach, yes, but at the expense of his abundance of hits.

"For the prices you're paying, we should be doing your kids' bar mitzvahs and birthday parties," he quipped, referring to the $75-$300 cost of a ducat.

But Joel still did Joel: the boogie-woogie riffs of "I Go to Extremes"; the pulse-quickening piano stabs of "Angry Young Man"; the defiance of "Movin' Out" (the crowd re-revved up by now); the bluesy homesickness of "New York State of Mind" (which made this New Yorker want to get back to the neighborhood); "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"; the loping rhythms of "River of Dreams"; the frenetically abridged history lesson of "We Didn't Start the Fire"; "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" and the tune "dedicated to the bad girls" -- "Only the Good Die Young" (Hey Virgina, just send up a signal, I'll throw you a line).

Reunited for the finale, Joel and John (now in a hot pink, black-accented number) kicked the adrenaline into fourth gear with vrooom-vrooom versions of "My Life," "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," the Beatles' "Come Together" and "Hard Day's Night," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," "The Bitch is Back" (John posing, diva-like, atop his piano, while Joel executed some belly-flop spins on his), "You May Be Right," "Candle in the Wind" and Bu-Bu-Bu "Bennie and the Jets."

It all reached a sing-songy climax with a classic, the crowd swaying and warbling along, word for word -- in spine-tingling a cappella at the memorable chorus -- as its composer conducted from onstage. Put it this way:

They sang us some songs, they're the piano men; they sang us some songs Saturday night; we were all in the mood for some melodies; and they had us feelin' alright.

Hey, that's catchy. Set that to music right away.

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