By Brian | July 17, 2008 | Share on Facebook
Billy Joel brought the house down last night. Or, at least, he played to a house that someone else is bringing down later this year.
It what can only be described as an amazing display of talent, guts, and stamina, Billy Joel rocked Shea Stadium last night for more than three hours, steamrolling through his unparalleled music catalog with the determination of a prize fighter in a championship bout. The show had everything, including selections from Joel’s well-known “Greatest Hits” albums, several obscure tracks that he rarely plays live, and a host of other musical surprises that sent the crowd reeling over and over again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
The stage at Shea Stadium was a bit of a departure from Joel’s standard arrangement. The grand piano was still front and center, of course, but the lack of audience members behind him meant the absence of the typical keyboards and runways that allow him to move about the stage during the show. In their place was a full string section at backstage right, and what has evolved over the last few years into a full-strength horn section at backstage left, complete with trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, and several saxophones. All of this was flanked by several large viewing screens, designed in the shape of the New York skyline, so folks in the upper deck would have a chance to see Joel at more than a microscopic scale.
The show began with the Shea Stadium announcer asking the crowd to “please rise for our national anthem” in true baseball style. Joel has performed the national anthem at various recent World Series and Superbowl games with, shall we say, “mixed success.” This time, though, on his “home turf” with his very own grand piano and his very own sound system, he delivered a rich, full performance of the song. My hopes were high.
Then the video screens came on. Joel looked completely exhausted. His face was flushed and dripping with sweat, and he was rubbing down his entire head with a towel while frequently drinking out of a coffee mug and spritzing his tongue with artificial saliva to stay hydrated. The first few songs, which included Miami 2017,
Angry Young Man and My Life were separated by conversations with the audience, during which Joel was obviously catching his breath and towelling down for the next song. While his voice was still rich and strong, his body language on stage made me wonder whether he’d survive the evening, let alone put on a lengthy, energetic show.
But then, to quote some of his lyrics, Joel seemed to “get his second wind.” He launched into a few rarely performed songs – Everybody Loves You Now,
The Entertainer, and Zanzibar, featuring the absolutely mind-boggling trumpet/flugelhorn talents of Carl Fischer. I don’t know if it was the fact that the sun had set at that point and the night had cooled off a bit, or maybe the energy from the Shea Stadium crowd boosted his adrenaline, but from that point on, Joel seemed to get younger and more energetic with every song. By the time he got to
It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me and You May Be Right, he was standing on the piano and shadow-boxing with the mike stand like he did back in the ’80s (OK, that’s too generous – how about like he did in the early ’00s?).
The hits kept coming, and Joel took special care to make each one a showstopper. He turned Innocent Man into a church spiritual, and Captain Jack into an all-out gospel celebration. The video work behind We Didn’t Start the Fire, showing all of the various historical people and events mentioned in the lyrics, enhanced the song tremendously. Goodnight Saigon was extremely poignant, given the presence of a dozen or more veterans from various branches of the military who joined him on stage to sing, “We said we’d all go down together.” That song ended with chants of “USA! USA!” from the crowd, a la the 1980 Lake Placid Hockey Team’s heroics. The aforementioned string orchestra put an amazing shine on songs like
Goodnight, My Angel and The Ballad of Billy the Kid, and the horn section turned
Big Man on Mulberry Street into a romping, big band jazz number.
In my January, 2006 review of his Madison Square Garden Concert, I said, “There were far fewer piano riffs/solos than there had been in years past, but what he did play sounded great, even if it wasn’t as dramatic as it used to be.” Not anymore. Joel’s keyboard was on fire last night, especially on songs like River of Dreams,
Root Beer Rag, and Don’t Ask Me Why. All told, Joel performed a whopping thirty-four songs over a period of three hours and fifteen minutes, including at least one cut from each of his twelve studio albums. The full set list is here.
But none of that is what everyone is going to be talking about.
Song #10 was New York State of Mind, an obvious choice for a hometown concert. Halfway through, Joel surprised the crowd by introducing fellow New Yorker, Tony Bennett, who joined him on stage to reprise the duet from Bennett’s 2006 album, “Duets: An American Classic.” Bennett, who will turn 82 years old in three weeks, hit the ball out of the park (sorry…). His voice was booming, and his enthusiasm sent the already excited crowd around the moon. When he yelled “New York! The Greatest City in the World!”, one could imagine the stadium coming down several months ahead of schedule.
But Joel wasn’t finished. The show contained three more guest stars, including John Mayer, who played the guitar solo on the rarely-performed This is the Time, Don Henley, who played his hit, Boys of Summer, in honor of Shea’s last season of baseball, and John Mellencamp, who played his hit, Pink Houses.
Joel also recognized Shea Stadium as the home of the iconic Beatles concerts of the mid-60′s. He wove Hard Day’s Night into his own River of Dreams, and ended the pre-encore show with Please, Please Me. During the encore, he said, “I’d like to thank the Beatles for letting us use their room! [They were] the greatest rock band that ever was and ever will be!” and then launched into She Loves You, as the video screens around the stage switched to black & white for the full effect. Given the cavalcade of stars we’d seen that evening, I was half-expecting Paul McCartney and/or Ringo Starr to join him on stage (and, in fact, I’m reading rumors this morning that they may be there at the second show on Friday night). Actual Beatles or not, I can tell you that while he was singing She Loves You, my eyes were transfixed on the pitcher’s mound, where the Beatles stood more than 30 years earlier, in front of a similarly screaming crowd. As a rule, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I could almost see the Fab Four appear on the mound, and the effect sent chills up my spine.
She Loves You was followed by Piano Man, which afforded us all the opportunity to hear 60,000 New Yorkers singing along (and sometimes instead of) Billy Joel on what has become his signature sign-off. As an extra bonus, he tossed in Souvenir after Piano Man, in what struck me as a nod to his advancing years, and the distinct possibility that this could be the last Billy Joel show any of us ever see. All I can say is, if that turns out to be the case, this was a hell of a way to go out.
A picture postcard
A folded stub
A program of the play
File away your photographs
Of your holiday
And your mementos
Will turn to dust
But that’s the price you pay
For every year’s a souvenir
That slowly fades away
Every year’s a souvenir
That slowly fades away
UPDATE: Pictures from the show now posted here.