Billy Joel At Madison Square Garden, Saturday, December 17th, 2016, Reviewed
36 concerts into Billy Joel’s franchise defining Madison Square Garden residency, a concert a month ad infinitum throughout the universe, and he has it down to a fine art and what is more, a fine art that is the height of concert mastery: a fine art that defines both the craft of Arena rock, pop art, and late career resurrection. Since I first saw the show in 2014, he has cut out the opening act and added 15 minutes to the end, built in segues between songs to go with the season, shuffled a 30 plus song set of hits and occasional obscurities, included an audience choice between songs from the same albums, concludes the set with “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and “PIano Man”, straps on his guitar for three songs in the encore, and, the secular Jewish atheist sends us home with “Only The Good Die Young”. Fronting what sounds like the best band of his career, Billy is equal parts laconic and iconic and Saturday night he was all that and more
My friend and Billy Joel enthusiast Sherry Davis, who first saw Billy at the Bottom line in the early 1970s, and who was with me for the Shea Stadium closing performances, the New Year’s 2013 gig at Barclay’s Center, as well as letting in a new millennium with Billy at the end of 1999, texted yesterday: “Last night was probably the best I’ve ever seen him, I’ve never seen him like that.”
Early on, Billy cut off a carol to crack “That’s enough of that, this isn’t the first Joel,” before extolling the virtues of New York during the season, and ignoring the joke to perform Christmas songs between the hits anyway: “The First Noel”, “The Christmas Song” (a nice double there: he botched the lyric and went out of tune), “Jingle Bells” (“wait, we can play it shittier”), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (with the audience spontaneously taking over), “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (the greatest Christmas song of all time). He warmed up one song with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, another with “Greensleeves”, a third with “Pomp And Circumstance”. He spoke to the audience often but not loquaciously, enough to keep you in the moment. And, almost as an add on, gave us a greatest hits set of your dreams. The kicker being: I’m not much of a Billy Joel fan.
Really, with the exception of An Innocent Man he has never ever sustained an album all the way through. I still can’t hear “Italian Restaurant” and “Piano Man” without throwing up in my mouth. Joel’s biggest songs about women are sexist palaver, his gnomic bitterness over a career long inability to, you know, rock out, left him on the outside of 1977, and whining how “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” till he has you wanting to strangle his tone deaf misreading of the times with a skinny tie. If there was ever an us and themism, Billy was more than them, he was the definition of them -dumping Elle MacPherson for Christie Brinkley while we were listening to Cabaret Voltaire’s dadaist creeds post-punk greatest generation rock and funk dream worlds.
But Joel never quite added up like that. While diplomat son Joe Strummer was pretending to be of the people, Joel was the other: his father came to the States to escape Nazi Germany and Billy worked jobs as a teenager to help provide for his divorced mother. Though not blue collar, he was what we could dub a white collar deplorable today, a liberal lower middle class everyman. As legend has it, Joel became a boxer (winning 22 fights before having his nose broken and quitting) to defend himself. DEFEND HIMSELF? Do the words anti-Semitism mean anything to you? He became a piano man after watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan: ” You could see this look in John Lennon’s face – and he looked like he was always saying: ‘Fuck you!’ – I said: ‘I know these guys, I can relate to these guys, I am these guys.’ So it was self-defense by other means, angry young man with a piano. Joel was also shallow: he wasn’t gifted enough to center his attack and the result is songs like the disingenuous “Allentown” and the bathetic “Goodnight Saigon” and the litany labelled “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. What saved him was his magpie gift for melody. And what saved him is that nearly 25 year years after his last lyric song (except for a couple of tracks in 2007), it doesn’t really matter at all. Plus, “The Longest Time”, “And So It Goes” and more than a handful of others, need no excuses from any one .
The first time I saw Joel, I took a girl I was dating (can’t remember her name) in the early 1990s and didn’t like him, but why would I? It was the “12 Nights At The Garden” concerts in 2006 that turned me around on the live act, I went four times. Still, even those four dates didn’t compare to Memorial Day weekend this year, where he performed “The Boys Of Summer” and “A Summer Place” (here)” and performed with so much ease and so much charm, he made it look easy. Well, it is about as easy as dumping Elle MacPherson for Christie Brinkley, that’s how easy it is. Selling out 36 consecutive concerts, including behind the stage seats? Wow. This Saturday he was even better. It wasn’t the setlist that made Saturday’s concert better, though it couldn’t have been improved upon by that much (I’d have dumped “Allentown” for “And So It Goes”… and found room for “Lullaby (My Angel)”), it was the pacing of the set. During the first third of the evening, he went from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to “The Longest Time” to “Keeping The Faith”. In the middle of a Christmas concert he performed a mini doo wop set. Rock superstars, Bruce himself, would kill for such a touch, such songs, such creative programming. Sometimes the segues make sense but you don’t know why, “Feliz Navidad’ to “Don’t Ask Me Why”(one of his greatest songs, he puts to bed all the Dylan if Dylan was crap barbs) accentuates the muted bossa nova of the latter but only just, you note it subconsciously.
The entire set was like that, the ticking intelligence that fueled Billy, as he opened with “Movin’ Out” continued with “The Entertainer” and “Prelude/Angry Young Man” (only one of which I actually like) and settling on the closest thing he had to a Christmas song, “She’s Right On Time” (Billy to Columbia Records: “Really? A Christmas record? That’s never been done before”), Then he settles in and doesn’t lose anything for two hours. It is so rare to be this cool and this hot at the same time: I’m not discussing self-confidence here, self-confidence has doubt in its DNA, this isn’t that, this is just this: the absolute certainty and control of one of the greats. He reminded me a little of Jerry Lee Lewis in the 90s, when James Burton was his bandleader. Jerry Lee would just sit at his piano like the driver of a Lamborghini, sleek and smooth, foot to the pedal in effortless, delirious control. You just lay back and let Billy do it, it only requires us to stay with him and he takes us everywhere he chooses to.
The best concerts I’ve seen in the 21st century goes
1 – Aretha Franklin’s Gospel set at Radio City the night after her Goddaughter died.
2 – Bobby Womack at City Winery
3 – D’Angelo at the Apollo Theatre
4 – Billy Joel on Saturday
5 – Neil Young Acoustic set at Carnegie Hall.
As he moved from ““Gloria in excelsis Deo” to “Gloria” in Them, all I can add is Gloria In Excelsis Billy Joel.