When two legendary "piano men" such as Sir Elton John and Billy Joel combine forces to appear on the same stage, it stands to reason the night will be an explosion of music unlike any other.
The energy created when John and Joel set foot on the same stage sparks an infectious excitement that cannot be contained in one show, so those two powerful forces have toured together time and again to sell-out crowds all over the globe.
So when veteran performers Michael Santoro and Kenny Metcalf decided to bring their collective talents together to recreate the magic of John and Joel, they knew everything had to be just right because fans of the men and their music expect nothing less.
Their show "Billy Joel 2 Elton John" returns to Don's Celebrity Theatre for the second time, bringing a promise of high energy, interactive rock and roll, with each performer getting his time in the spotlight before the finale where the men play together on separate pianos while sharing lyrics on each other's songs.
Billy Joel tribute artist Santoro is a native Long Islander and a lifelong fan of the "Piano Man," and used that inspiration to grow as a pianist and vocalist, to recreate one of the most authentic tributes out there. His song list includes familiar Joel tunes such as "Only the Good Die Young" and, of course, "Piano Man," songs that were top 40 hits when they were released, as well as lesser known numbers, including "Big Shot" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" that are standards for serious Billy Joel fans.
Metcalf, who dons the iconic sunglasses and bedazzled suits of Elton John for hit songs like "Rocket Man," "Crocodile Rock," and "Bennie & the Jets," is the producer and creator of this show. He is known as one of the top tribute artists worldwide. The L.A. native's spot-on performances embody stellar musicianship, vocal accuracy and stage antics that have gained him countless accolades from fans and peers in the entertainment industry.
While the show is relatively new to the Riverside Resort, Metcalf has performed his Elton John tribute here before.
"I also played with Mike when he headlined during a New Year's Eve party at Harrah's Laughlin," he said. "He's amazing. Mike Santoro is very well received and he's actually had Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel's original drummer, hire him to play Billy Joel for him. So he's really good."
There's no doubt the audience will be singing along, possibly forgetting these guys are a tribute.
What is surprising is that after more than 50 years in the business for Elton John and 46 years for Billy Joel, their popularity is still intact, and fans can't get enough of the music, even if they can't get to one of their separate or joint concerts.
Metcalf performs both as a stand-alone Elton John tribute and works with various Billy Joels as well. Santoro also tours with his own Billy Joel tribute.
"Actually, there is a demand for both shows," Metcalf told the Laughlin entertainer. "I work with other Billy Joels, but I work with Michael Santoro most of the time, and our Elton John tribute is 98% of everything we do. But when the Billy Joel portion is in demand, we fire up the show."
The show includes a sax player, guitarist, bass player, drummer and, of course, the two piano guys.
While portraying John wasn't what Metcalf set out to do, John set the wheels in motion for Metcalf's musical direction.
"Elton was the reason I became a piano player," he said. "I was a drummer for 10 years before I played piano. When Elton's ‘Bennie & The Jets’ was No. 1 on the charts in 1973, that pretty much set me over the top. I told myself, 'I gotta do that.'
"I wasn't doing Elton stuff my whole life, just for the last 14 years," he added. "In the '80s, I toured with a band called Stryper. They were heavy metal and I was their original tour keyboardist. So I did that in the '80s and we (the band) did other things along the way. But I got off the road to raise my kids — they're in their 30s now."
His perspective is all about making the most of this opportunity to create the kind of show that means something to himself and the audiences he brings it to. The importance of getting it right is front and center.
"You know, I've pretty much been a perfectionist my whole life on things that we do in this show and that I've done," Metcalf said. "I grew up with a dad that was that way — in his craft of what he did, and he was a sign-maker. So I grew up in his sign shop, making neon and plastic signs, working with band saws and routers. With all my costumes, other than sewing them together, I do all the 'blinging' including all the rhinestones on the shoes.
"When we walk on stage you're seeing a live musical production. And so when I walk on stage, I'm Elton John, I don't break character until the end when I introduce the band and the show is over. I want to be as close to Elton as possible, from the vocals to the costuming."
All of his efforts have paid off because Metcalf has earned the reputation as being one of the best tribute artists in the business today. And as it turns out, it's not only fans who are watching, but people who actually had a hand in shaping Elton John's career.
"I got a break five years ago," he said. "Ryan Seacrest and Mark Cuban found me on YouTube and they were creating a show that hadn't even been out yet, and it was on AXS TV, their network, and it's called 'The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.'
"I was on Episode 5, Season 1 and there were 40 million viewers. It was a live national broadcast so it was a make-or-break-you situation. Elton's original guitarist, Caleb Quaye, joined me on stage to close the show and Elton's other guitarist, Davey Johnstone, was at home watching it on TV. He gave us a thumbs up the next day, and said, 'Tell those boys they don't have to leave town,' and that was nice," he said. "Then AXS TV brought us back for Season 4 and gave us a 90-minute special to do our 'Billy Joel 2 Elton John.' They wanted to do the 'Face to Face' Billy and Elton show so we did that. Between the two TV shows that AXS gave us, there were 90 million viewers. That pretty much set us aside as the premier Elton show or Billy Joel tribute.
"I've played with Caleb Quaye four times now," he added. "He played on seven of Elton's albums, two of them were Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves. He's the guy who also signed Elton to his record contract with Dick James Publishing. He endorses my show. He says it's surreal when he's on stage with me.
"One of the guys who worked at Dick James Publishing as Elton was coming up the ranks was Stuart Epps," Metcalf said. "He's a world famous studio engineer now and he played with me one night via video and he said to me, 'I've actually had Elton John tributes in the U.K.,' and that I blew them all away." He also said, 'I've not seen anybody who does Elton like you.'
"Last week he saw me play in Hollywood and he told me, 'I was the guy who brought Elton over to the U.S. to play the Troubadour show that launched his career in the United States. I saw Elton John live for the first time 50 years ago in 1970, and somehow I saw Elton John again tonight — you have the same passion, the sound and showmanship. You recreate him, I saw Elton again tonight.’ ”
A tribute show to the chemistry and charisma in addition to the enormous talent of these two legendary artists lets go of the personal conflict stuff and focuses on the business of delivering hit songs in a fun atmosphere, tied up with one big flamboyant bow.
When there are two major egos in the same place, one can expect a little "piano envy" going on perhaps?
"We do have that natural chemistry, except we don't hate each other at times," he laughed. "I say that tongue-in-cheek — there are articles that say Elton and Billy are always fighting. But my piano's bigger than Mike's. It's a foot bigger.
"The point is always to have fun, and the other part is to make people happy and put smiles on their faces — and that's what we get to do," he said. "If people walk out of there and they have a smile on their faces and they were singing with you, then we did our job for the venue.
"We try to mix it up and not do the same thing we did last time we were there, but it will all be stuff everybody knows — the standards, the sing-alongs, the things that they'll all be familiar with," Metcalf said. "The two of us will play together a couple times during the show as well, and close the show together.
"We're really looking forward to coming back to Laughlin," he said. "It's always lovely to be there, any of the casinos treat us really nice, but the Riverside really takes care of us really nicely. So it's always fun to play there. We're excited to be back and playing in Laughlin. The people are always very kind to us — I mean everybody, from the fans to the venue. It's always a pleasure, so we're looking forward to five days of rock and roll.
"The fun part is if we do our job right, people actually feel like they were just watching Elton John and Billy Joel," he said. "It's gonna be a high-energy show, very fun with great musicians. The band is stellar. Each night, even if the songs are the same, there's always going to be little twists that change things because it's a live show. It's musical theater from that standpoint and we don't break character. Come out to the show, it's gonna be a blast."