Billy Joel plans to play monthly shows at Madison Square Garden for as long as the public is interested. Follow his first year of this groundbreaking music-industry experiment by looking at his shows through a variety of viewpoints -- from critics, musicians, celebrities and fans. This month, it’s Newsday pop music writer Glenn Gamboa, who has now seen Joel in concert 20 times. Check back every month in 2014 to see how Joel's concert series is evolving.
Billy Joel loves baseball. The sport runs as a metaphor through his work and when he was considering retirement -- before he embarked on his Madison Square Garden residency -- he told me he would rather take himself out of the lineup than be the past-his-prime guy who can’t hit the fastball any more.
So it was no surprise Thursday night at The Garden when he delivered a gorgeous version of “New York State of Mind” and dedicated it to newly retired Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.
What was surprising is how far away from retirement Joel looks to be now, even after turning 65 this year. In the 10th sold-out month of his residency, he looks happier than ever to be onstage with his always-impressive, seven-piece backing band.
Joel’s ever-changing, two-hour setlist has become a masterful balance of classic hits and rarities. He has even introduced the “fielder’s choices” into the set where he lets the audience choose the next song, explaining to the band Thursday night, “They pick ‘em, they like ‘em,” after a poignant version of “Vienna,” which the audience chose over “Summer, Highland Falls.”
The Joel set is pretty indestructible these days, opening with the prescient “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” -- which seems even grander after another round of destruction and rebuilding in the area -- and closing with the crafty, sacred-profane good-time anthem “Only the Good Die Young.”
However, in the same way baseball scouts can judge the quality of a pitcher by the movement of his breaking ball, Joel-watchers can tell the strength of a Piano Man outing by the way he handles “River of Dreams” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” -- both masterfully done Thursday.
“River of Dreams” is ostensibly a simple song, the call-and-response with the band throughout the song creating both a gospel feel and a calming influence that simulates floating down a river. It’s almost always a winner, but when Joel is in the right mood, it becomes a showcase for his talents, both as a performer and as a bandleader. On Thursday, it showed his cleverness as well -- folding in bits of both Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” to create a water-themed, genre-busting trifecta.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is the other end of the performance spectrum, an epic suite of Long Island-based vignettes that is both musically and lyrically challenging. The lengthy piano solo is all the more impressive when a close-up of Joel’s hands flying across the keys is shown on the big screen. That virtuosity is balanced with the easy, crowd-pleasing fun of an arm-waving goodbye to Brenda and Eddie.
“Italian Restaurant” serves as the centerpiece of Joel’s show in the same way the epic “Live and Let Die” does for Paul McCartney -- only Joel does it without all the pyro, letting the lyrical specifics pack the punch instead.
That’s not to say that Joel still doesn’t rock out. He looked like he was having a blast playing rhythm guitar on “Highway to Hell” as Chainsaw from his road crew took over the microphone. And the hip-swiveling fun of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” complete with turned-up collar and Elvis-like sneers, is as rock star as it gets.
The Captain may have called it a day. But The Piano Man is still at the top of his game.
SETLIST: Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) / Pressure / Everybody Loves You Now / Laura / Sometimes a Fantasy / Zanzibar / New York State of Mind / Movin’ Out / Vienna / Allentown / Your Song (snippet) / She's Always a Woman / America > Don't Ask Me Why / Highway to Hell / We Didn't Start the Fire / Bridge Over Troubled Water (snippet) River of Dreams/Fool in the Rain / Scenes From an Italian Restaurant / Piano Man // ENCORES: Uptown Girl / It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me / You May Be Right / Only The Good Die Young