January 31st, 2006 08:06 EST
The Great Suburban Showdown At The Garden
In this corner: an historical landmark arena, home to the Rangers and Knicks, legendary acts and thousands of admiring fans.
In this corner: a short, average guy from the Long Island suburbs, armed with a large catalogue of songs and a piano.
Ding-ding!! There’s the bell! Let’s have a nice, clean fight!!
It’s clear that Billy Joel is indeed a ‘Big Man on Mulberry Street’…or at least on 32nd Street and 7th Avenue, home of New York’s most intimidating arena, Madison Square Garden. If you search for truthfulness, it isn’t hard to find. Joel hasn’t had a new hit, a new song or album for the longest time. In fact, the one latest album release he’s had is filled with early works and demos. Who does this guy think he is? Why is he still touring? And why are people still so anxious to see him?
Well, somewhere along the line, ‘Captain Jack’ decided to give his fans a treat. Hitting the road with his cache of major recognizable hits, with a few lesser known, golden nuggets thrown in for good measure, his goal was to do sets that he hasn’t done in years; an enormous delight to younger fans who have just discovered his music and for older ones, keeping the faith he’d tour again and wanting to relive their first experience. And so, the ballad of Billy the kid continues in this fashion: promising long ago never to do long, drawn-out tours where he’s on the road for years, he agreed to do short bursts of performances. Florida, Washington, D.C., Connecticut and Manhattan, New York would be among his first stops. Who knew that this early winter tour would snowball into a hugely, unprecedented accomplishment?
Already having the distinction of being the first commercially released album on c.d. back in 1982 with 52nd Street, Billy Joel has garnered 23 Grammy nominations, claiming 6 wins, and has sold over 100 million records in the past 25 years. Now, there’s a new honor to behold. In 1976, Elton John sold out 7 shows at Madison Square Garden. Neil Diamond had beautiful noise in 1986 with 8. The Grateful Dead sold out the Garden in 9 shows twice, in ‘88 and again in ‘91. By 2002, Bruce Springsteen saw glory days with 10. But then along comes Billy Joel, New York’s favorite son, to smash the record at 11 sold-out performances, soon to be 12. (A twelfth show that has been added for April 24th is expected to sell-out). Joel’s silent statement…this is my hometown.
So, who’s the “Big Shot” now? Selling out MSG twelve times, besides being an easy entry into the record books, also means easy money. However, the addition of shows was not solely profit oriented. His goal wasn’t to become a record breaker, or to take advantage of his admirers, but to protect them. By increasing the amount of concerts, the demand for tickets would decrease, foiling the plans of scalpers and ticket agencies from preying on his fans by gouging prices to sometimes over triple the face value. Billy Joel’s tickets have always been a reasonable price; this tour’s range from $54.50 - $89.50. Being a legendary rock icon, though he may not like to admit it, he can easily demand much higher. Yet, through all his achievements, he remains loyal to the little guy because he continues to see himself as such.
Yes, the man took a calculated gamble, but now he had to prove he still had the power to perform. After all, he’d taken himself out of the limelight, pop musically speaking, since 1993’s River Of Dreams. Since then, he’s had a classical adventure with 2001’s Fantasies and Delusions, and 2002’s hit ‘dansical’ run on Broadway with Movin’ Out. Joel hasn’t toured since 2002’s Face to Face, where he shared entertaining responsibilities with his long-time buddy and fellow piano man, Elton John. Now Billy has to keep an audience’s attention by himself, something he hasn’t done since 1998, eight years ago. No pressure.
As countless devotees will know, besides sensational lighting effects, a Billy Joel concert is not visually spectacular. There’s no complicated choreography, no flashy pyro techniques, no eye candy whatsoever. There’s just an older gentleman, sitting in front of his well established band, at a shiny piano. Yet, he’s got a way about him. The appeal is that Joel has a likeability that adds to his aura; he’s alluring and simply put, captivates the audience, whether sitting in the front row, or up in the nose-bleeds.
Just like a boxer in a title fight, he had to walk in that ring all alone. But once there, the audience embraced him with cheers and appreciation. His January shows at the Garden were buzzing with excitement. The shiny, black baby grand rose from underneath the stage. The lights went out. The piano began to play with fiery force and the spotlight shone on Billy Joel, revving up the crowd to a roar louder than the trains beneath Penn Station. He may not have had new material to display, but this night, and the ones to follow, meant one thing: this was the time to remember.
Forget tickling the ivories; the speed with which those fingers thundered the 88 keys was astounding. The vocals were strong, lively and full of conviction. He was on his own turf, in a New York state of mind, and pulling no punches. After all, Joel is no stranger to performing, even if he’s been out of practice. Years of composing his own lyrics and music, and perfecting his live shows have enabled him to hone in on his skills, making his concerts an enjoyable experience.
There were a few surprises for the attendees. Non-hit songs were brought out, dusted off and given their moment with mixed results. Often comparing those tracks as his children that didn’t grow up to be doctors and lawyers, special attention was given on their outing. “Everybody Loves You Now” from 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor and “Pressure”, from 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, got ‘em hummin’, while “Laura”, also from The Nylon Curtain didn’t go over as well. “Zanzibar”, from the 1978 jazz inspired album 52nd Street, needed a big sound to be pulled off properly and Joel and company achieved it. Other tracks not often heard were “Great Wall Of China” (River Of Dreams), “All For Leyna” (1980’s Glass Houses), “Stiletto” (52nd Street) and fan favorite ”Sometimes A Fantasy” (Glass Houses).
Opening night had Billy paying tribute to the passing of Wilson Pickett, by inserting “In The Midnight Hour” to his set-list at the last minute with great success. Poignant moments occurred during “Goodnight Saigon”, as war veterans sang the simple, yet chilling chorus, “…we said we’d all go down together…”, sharing the sentiment of the current war, ending with flashing the peace sign and thousands following suit. Other tender points included the beautiful coming of age advice of “Vienna” from 1977’s The Stranger, the classic love song “She’s Always A Woman”, also from The Stranger, and the rolling melody of “Summer, Highland Falls” from ‘76’s Turnstiles.
Funny times included changing the lyrics in “Zanzibar” to “Rose he knows he’ll never make the hall of fame…”, (a reference to Pete Rose), and the crowd interaction during the break of “The River Of Dreams”. While the first few chords of “Innocent Man” were being played, Joel stalled for time, singing a line from “Spanish Harlem”, then a few more from “Stand By Me”. After finding himself hard pressed to remember the words to the latter, he was amused as the crowd continued the lyrics where he had left off. Snapping them back to his own catalogue, he sang “Innocent Man” with a cheeky flair, complete with old school snapping and slow dance movements. Strapping on a guitar was a testament to how talented Billy is musically, as “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (from ‘89’s Storm Front) got the honor of the instrumental change. The rowdiness continued as receiving a baseball cap from the front row, he put it on and took up an exaggerated, tough guy persona, boasting the lyrics to “Big Shot”, and strutting around the stage. The interaction with the fans and his band, along with brief introductions of his songs enhanced the concert experience. The biggest reactions did come from his monster hits, and as always, he reveled in the massive sing-along to his unintentional moniker “Piano Man”.
Billy Joel is a consummate professional. Comfortable in his own skin, he joked about past mistakes, uncontrollable factors and bonded with his people. Playing with pure magnetism, the band is comprised of most of the usual suspects, with a few new faces. Tommy Byrnes, the musical director, guitar and vocals, Richie Cannata on saxophones, Mark Rivera on saxophone, guitar, flute, and vocals, Crystal Taliefero with percussion, guitar, saxophone, and vocals, Dave Rosenthal on keyboards, piano, organ, and vocals, Andy Cichon on bass and vocals, and from the Movin’ Out production, Chuck Burgi on drums and Carl Fischer on trumpet and trombone.
Gone are the days of head stands on pianos and running from left and right. Nowadays, it’s more of a stroll to each keyboard on stage and acrobatics have been replaced with twirls of the microphone stand. The energy is evident in vocals, shared anecdotes and demeanor. Through the long night, the one souvenir a fan could take home with them was the experience of seeing a last of a dying breed: a rock legend, in spirit, if not in looks, who pounded the life out of his piano and gave one hell of a show. No, he’s not an angry young man anymore, but he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like for the little guy. His famous last words of every concert are slightly vulgar but wise life advice: “Don’t take any shit from anybody”.
He’s seen the lights go out on Broadway, and has come far from being a streetlife serenader. Billy Joel proved himself to be the ultimate entertainer; no match for MSG’s history. Just after over two short hours, among the first of twelve record-breaking stints at the Garden, the obvious winner by T.K.O.: Billy Joel.
For information on more shows at the Garden and other upcoming concerts, visit BillyJoel.com or Ticketmaster.com.