Billy Joel gets a bad rap in the “serious music lover” world. The fact that his best songs were hits seems to make him lose all street cred that songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen maintain. Bruce Springsteen’s the only widely-respected songwriter I can think of with massive hits, but then again if you “know your music”, you wouldn’t be caught dead with Born in the USA on your favorites list.
However, since I was young Billy has been a favorite of mine, but due to ticket prices and distances a concert had eluded me until this weekend. I’m thrilled I finally caught a show…but am in no hurry to see another.
The show was Nostalgia with a capital N. Just about every hit was played and, with a guy with so many hits, that was basically the whole setlist. They’re excellent songs, to be sure, but the sing-a-long aspect began to wear after a while (especially with a crowd too busy preparing for their post-concert drunken casino binge to actually do much singing).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with faithfully-performed renditions of the big hits. Lest us in the music-blogging world forget, that’s how most bands operate. With Billy Joel, however, that was all there was, little tangible movement or excitement on stage available to enliven the proceedings. Being the “piano man” is clearly limiting, confining him to a stationary seat where his guitar-playing counterparts can strut around. The band, however, seemed so desperate not to upstage Joel that they were equally boring, wandering forward for the occasional solo, but looking remarkably uninterested besides. The exception to the rule was guitarist Tommy Bynes (also by far the most obviously talented musician up there), who looked like some more friendly character from the Sopranos letting loose in his weekend bar band.
If the band was unexciting, one aspect of the show almost made up for it: the lights. Joel could have performed twice as well and the lighting designer still would have been the star of the show. Every moment of the concert had some coordinated lighting system, colors and shapes cascading across the stage and around the arena. The blue lights during “Downeaster Alexa” set a rolling sea mood, and the swirling colors in an extended “River of Dreams” invoked both images in that title.
There were highlights, though, and Billy Joel certainly is good at what he does. Decades since he rose to fame, his piano-playing is still top notch, as seen in a frenetic “Angry Young Man” and the lively Diddly-beat intro to “Don’t Ask Me Why”. Even better, though, was when he ditched the piano completely, going mano-a-mano with the microphone during “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me”. Roger Daltry may be famous for throwing his mic up in the air and catching it, but Billy throws the whole damn stand! More moments like that would have given the show some much-needed energy.
Speaking of energy, a review of this show would be remiss without mention of the cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” sung by roadie Chainsaw. And it had plenty of energy, to be sure. Too bad it was the sort of energy you might get from a drunk uncle singing lewd songs at your wedding. An absolute embarrassment, it’s inconceivable why Joel had this guy came up unless he owed him a favor or something. If you need a break from singing, Billy, play an instrumental, take a set break – hell, just clap into the microphone for five minutes, and it would still be preferable to Chainsaw’s incoherent yelling.
At least that changed the show up a little bit though, in a concert that became stagnant quickly. Good for the one-time casual fan, but not much content there for anyone in search of something deeper. Though I will say this: hearing “Piano Man” in concert with a few thousand people is an experience that can’t be replicated.
Prelude/Angry Young Man
New York State of Mind
Keeping the Faith
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
River of Dreams
Highway to Hell
We Didn't Start the Fire
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
Only the Good Die Young