Billy Joel has always been an interesting curiosity.
“The Piano Man,” a moniker he reportedly has never really cared for, has been a radio staple since the 1970’s, when he was a giant on FM. This is a guy who despite sitting behind a piano was a bonafide rock star in the tradition of Jerry Lee Lewis and, eventually Elton John (who Joel would later tour with before Elton called him out for disappointments in their partnership), who married a super model, once pushed a piano off-stage during a fit of rage in Russia and along the way sold more records than Michael Jackson.
Now, at age 66, the Bronx-native with an astounding 33 “Top 40” hits – including, remarkably, “Top Ten” entries in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – returned to kick off Fenway Park’s concert season with a sell-out for the second consecutive year. This despite, as he admitted before introducing “The Entertainer” (“A record that didn’t sell shit”) not having been on the charts in over twenty years. For all his chart success, Joel has never enjoyed the critical hosanna’s afforded many of his lesser-selling peers, yet on the Fenway stage one thing was abundantly clear.
When it comes to the praises of critics or the vagaries of being hip, this man really doesn’t give a shit.
Which was just one factor that led to such an enjoyably entertaining show. Joel leads an absolutely knockout band that seems perhaps strengthened by his ongoing Madison Square Garden “residency” – Joel plays the New York City landmark once a month and has said he’ll continue to do so as long as there is demand – able to swing in whatever direction their leader points.
Balls out rock n’ roll? How about the undeniable opening salvo’s of “Big Shot” followed by “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)?” Tuneful sentimentality? “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” both did the trick with references to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, hence drawing a hearty response from a Boston summertime crowd. And for the older aficionado, perhaps a little do wop? “The Longest Time” fits the bill.
And that was all within the first ten songs of the night. Hell, he even through in a quick run through “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” for good measure!
While the hits just kept coming, equally impressive was Joel’s modesty in delivering them. While his singing was strong and his band tight his banter was humble enough that it was easy to imagine his song introductions working as successfully in a hotel lounge – ironically the setting where his signature “Piano Man” was inspired – as they did in a sold-out sports stadium.
This was not to say that anything about this huge spectacle was underplayed. The helicopter effects that introduced “Goodnight Saigon” were outdone only by the cadres of servicemen flanking Joel on either side and joining in on the song’s chorus. The universal fan recognition of “My Life” was prefaced by Joel admitting he’d married for the fourth time and admonishing a fan critic: “If all I did was listen to you I’d still be washing dishes at Nick’s Luncheonette.”
Sure, “Keeping The Faith” veered dangerously close to an AARP sing-along, but following closely with the rocking “Sometimes A Fantasy” punched things back up quickly. “Don’t Ask Me Why” gave Joel a chance to do a little Latin-inspired piano workout that fit the song terrifically while “We Didn’t Start The Fire” gave him a chance to stretch his legs, literally, as he stepped out from behind the piano and went to guitar. If “In The Middle Of The Night” threatened to get a little schmaltzy, he remedied that quickly by inserting a bit of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City” in the midst of it. Perfect call in the perfect setting at the perfect time. This is a man who knows what sells.
Once Joel cruised into the home stretch, it was a tribute to the songwriter’s catalog that even a casual fan could immediately think of songs he was hoping to hear, and if it was predictable the devotees wouldn’t have it any other way. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” was greeted like a favorite relative’s arrival at a wedding, and sax man, Mark Rivera, a force all evening, absolutely killed it. The simple act of donning a harmonica for “Piano Man” drew wild applause before Joel sang it without a trace of boredom for such an established warhorse.
By the time he concluded with his classic “Only The Good Die Young”, a tale of teenage frustration whose target, “Virginia”, could be a first cousin to Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita”, Joel had, in the true spirit of the venue, touched all the bases. And, on this night at least, one critic was in his corner.