LONDON − Call it a reverse British invasion.
Some 60 years ago, The Beatles launched a sonic attack on U.S. shores that echoes still. This past weekend, two Yanks – Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel − struck back with salvos of chart-topping hits that rocked 70,000 fans to their core during his British Summer Time Hyde Park shows.
Let’s call it an amicable draw – one punctuated by the addition of Beatles songs to both performers’ expansive repertoires. For Joel, it was a raucous “A Hard Day’s Night,” for The Boss, the Top Notes/Isley Brothers-turned-mop top classic “Twist and Shout.”
In case the debt owed wasn’t clear, E Street Band bass player Garry Tallent sported a T-shirt that read “The Cavern,” a nod to the Liverpool club that is the Beatles’ ground zero.
Both Joel and Springsteen can gush about the seismic impact of seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. Fans half expected – no, hoped – local legends Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr might materialize off the streets of London to join in a duet. Instead, it was Joe Jonas guesting with Joel on “Uptown Girl.”
Springsteen, 73, was the first to strike, on Thursday, marching his E Street Band into an encampment of diehard fans from both sides of the pond with a three-hour show that spanned the Jersey boy’s half-century of indelible tunes. Celebrity admirers including Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Federer, Stella McCartney, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Emma Thompson, Bob Geldof, Rami Malek and of course Joel were all photographed at Thursday’s show.
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The very next day, it was 74-year-old Joel’s turn to shine as bright as the California-worthy sun lit up the massive outdoor venue. And finally, on Saturday, Springsteen & Co. returned to deliver the coup de grace with another three-hour blitz that defied Father Time.
“Do you wanna go home?” Springsteen asked frequent microphone-mate Steven Van Zandt, who shook his head. “I don’t either,” came the reply. Then, the deafening roar of the masses.
Run, don’t walk, to see Springsteen and Joel, both at the top of their musical games, while they’re still in their arena-rock performing days.
Joel has dates coming up in the U.S., including the end of his Madison Square Garden residency shows. He’ll perform at the Garden July 24 and then hit the road to play solo and with Stevie Nicks.
Springsteen has a few more European dates to complete before storming back to the States for his own set of stadium shows, starting Aug. 9 in Chicago followed by Philadelphia and later his hallowed home turf of East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Billy Joel joined by Joe Jonas for ‘Uptown Girl’ at Hyde Park
While intimate shows are rare and special, there’s something about a massive outdoor crowd that can recite all the lyrics back that takes a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s performance to a new level.
Joel, sporting his gray goatee and shades, kicked off his show with “My Life,” immediately launching a singalong that didn’t stop for two hours. What followed was a live jukebox of familiar staples, including “The Entertainer,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “New York State of Mind.”
At one point, Joel stood up from his piano and struck an arched back rooster pose. The opening chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” blared from the speakers.
“Don’t worry,” Joel cracked as the crowd cheered. “I ain’t no Mick Jagger.”
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While the Long Islander didn’t cut a rug, his voice and piano skills remain beyond reproach. “Piano Man” might not have had the high-pitched plea from the 50-year-old album of the same name, but it delivers the same evocative thrust to the heart.
One deviation from the Joel songbook was a tribute to the late Tina Turner. The band slammed its way through “River Deep, Mountain High,” with percussionist Crystal Taliefero taking over the soaring vocals.
And finally, there was Joel joined by Jonas for a raucous “Uptown Girl” closer. It was hard to tell if, while leaving the stage, Joel was wiping away sweat or a tear. Given that it’s doubtful he’ll play to this size London crowd again, we’ll go with the latter.
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If Joel represented the realized dreams of a musical New Yorker, Springsteen was there to represent the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
While Ponce de Leon might have been looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth in the 1500s, clearly Springsteen found it. Forget the length of the show and its 28-song set list. Let’s talk about how the E Street Band’s leader didn’t even take a breather between songs.
It was always the same routine: a sustained power chord from any one of a series of Fender Telecasters at the end of a song, toss the guitar in the air to a waiting roadie, receive a new guitar, and then … “One, two, three, four!” And off into a new tune.
And what tunes. Classics from the vault like “Kitty’s Back” and “The E Street Shuffle.” Mid-career staples such as “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.” And later hymns typified by “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising.”
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Sure, there was no “Thunder Road” or “Born in the USA,” but there was a stirring “Backstreets” and a joyous “Working on the Highway.” No complaints.
But hearing a Springsteen song is far different than seeing the E Street Band and its Energizer Bunny of a frontman.
Sweating in a black T-shirt and jeans, Springsteen frequently took leave of the main massive stage − whose crystal sonic mix and big screen clarity represent an industry standard − to clamber down a few flights of stairs to join his fans. He handed out harmonicas and picks. Shook hands with bearded bikers and little tykes alike.
Sure, this is a rock deity who doesn’t need to do this stuff. But he’s also a man who’s renewed with each fan high-five.
Hyde Park became for a few hours not the playground of princes and kings but a true church of rock ‘n’ roll, its grinning high priests sporting nicknames like Little Steven, The Professor (Roy Bittan on piano), Mighty Max (Weinberg on drums) and of course The Boss himself.
“Thank you for two great nights,” Springsteen bellowed to the crowd as he and his merry band of music makers left the stage.
No, thank you for a lifetime of majestic music. Long may you reign.