There is, despite the lyrics claiming otherwise, no discernable “regular crowd” shuffling into a Billy Joel concert. My co-worker brought her 86-year-old aunt. I brought my 13-year-old son. The family a couple rows in front of me brought three kids, all under 10 years old. A Billy Joel concert, it turns out, is an all-ages affair.
And why not? No one in their right mind will ever claim that the 68-year-old Billy Joel has changed the landscape of music—probably including Joel himself—but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a hell of a good time at a Billy Joel concert. This is because Joel knows what his audience wants and he delivers. There were no b-sides, there was no new stuff, Wednesday’s concert was just song after song of familiarity, like a warm, comforting blanket in an arena full of people. Maybe Joel’s “Piano Man” says it best with the lyrics “It’s me they’ve been coming to see, to forget about life for a while.”
The notoriously gruff Joel has a way of charming the audience as they walk down memory lane with him, from an impersonation of “that other piano guy” Elton John (he sang bits of the John song “Your Song.” “Wait a minute,” Joel said incredulously, “You don’t have much money?!”) to name-dropping the Terrace Ballroom while running down his history with SLC, it seems that Joel feeds off the audience and loves them just as much as they love him.
He offered up what he called “fielder’s choice” on eight total slots in the set, a chance for the audience to choose the next song, though some of them were certainly obvious choices—“Everybody Loves You Now” vs. “She’s Got a Way,” for example. After an overwhelming vote in favor of the latter, Joel teased the crowd, “I was hoping you’d pick the other one.” And after the love song ended, he deadpanned, “And then we broke up.”
And the songs. Oh the songs. Opening with “My Life” and weaving through his 40-plus-year catalog, including “New York State of Mind,” “The Longest Time,” “Vienna,” “River of Dreams” (with a cover of the Eagles “Take it Easy” played smack in the middle of the song), “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and, of course, “Piano Man,” Joel and his band ripped through 22 songs—and that was before a rousing five song encore that started with “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and ended with “You May Be Right.” In all, he was onstage for just over two and a half hours.
The crowd sang along to everything and during the more tender love songs, they danced in the aisles. Though the show was in a basketball arena, it felt intimate, save for Joel’s rotating piano—it would move him mid song from facing one direction to facing the other—lasers that would beam down, especially during the more rockin’ songs, and the large screens overhead that alternated between showing Joel and his bandmates, the crowd and visual cues accompanying songs, when appropriate.
Joel did due diligence in introducing each member of the Billy Joel Band, bringing rhythm guitar player Mike DelGuidice out for an unexpectedly moving version of the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” and giving the stage to a roadie named Chainsaw for a even more unexpected cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” which culminated in Mr. Saw deploying a fire extinguisher to create fog effects.
Unexpected? Yes. Entertaining? Also yes.
I’m sure after all the touring Joel’s done, including a long-standing residency at Madison Square Garden, the act alone could become a rote task. But by adding in a little self-depreciating humor and more audience participation, he seems to still be having a hell of a time himself, helping us all to forget about life for a while.