“I’m a band guy, and when the band sounds good... I get into it,” Joel says.
Billy Joel began his tenure as a “franchise” at New York's iconic Madison Square Garden on Monday night (Jan. 27) with a crowd-pleasing set that delivered on every level, with the singer in fine voice and his sterling eight-piece band hitting on all cylinders.
The first of his monthly Garden concerts, nine of which have been announced and are sold out, was an important gig for Joel in what is turning out to be a milestone year. As he told the packed-to-the-rafters crowd before breaking into 1976’s “Summer, Highland Falls,” 2014 marks his 50th year as a professional musician. That song’s familiar refrain of “either sadness or euphoria” decidedly tilted toward the latter on this night, as every song delivered, be it classic rock radio staples like “Piano Man” and “Allentown” or deeper cuts like “Blonde Over Blue” and “Where’s the Orchestra” from his 12th studio album "River Of Dreams," released in 1993.
Well-aged as the set list may have been, including “Everybody Loves You Now” from his first album "Cold Spring Harbor" in 1971, Joel and his band brought vigor and vitality to them all. The performance was celebratory out of the gate with the apocalyptic “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” followed by a pounding “Pressure,” as Joel, dressed in black and expertly manning his rotating baby grand, maintained an easy rapport with the audience.
Ironically, Joel’s bluesy classic “Baby Grand,” which he worked up extensively in sound check, didn’t make the cut for the actual performance. Joel told Billboard backstage prior the show that the set list was “still fluid” an hour before show time. “I keep changing shit all the time when I’m on stage,” he shrugged, and it was evident in the afternoon’s prep that the Billy Joel Band is a democratic institution, albeit one with a firm hand at the wheel.
“I’m a band guy, and when the band sounds good and everybody’s on point and they want to try stuff, I get into it,” Joel said. “I’m having fun swinging with this band. When somebody wants to contribute something, I listen to them. I have the final say if I want, but I don’t always know, so I defer to people.”
The show touched on most all of Joel’s 1970s-‘90s output, and if the artist sometimes had trouble pinpointing exactly when each song was written, he shrugged it off: “We’ve all lost a couple of years in the ‘80s,” he quipped, and the audience seemed to agree. It’s this sort of self-effacing, good-natured connection with his audience that is critical to Joel’s longevity, particularly in his home turf of New York, where he will surely be a winning “franchise” for as long as he wants.
Alternating between bottled water, throat spray (“I saw Madonna do that once; it didn’t help much”), and whatever was in a "Billy Joel at the Garden" coffee mug, ($20 at the merch stand), Joel glided smoothly through all his various periods. “Longest Time” got the a capella treatment to perfection, though Joel seems to think it, “sounds better in the men’s room.” Five staggered video screens provided a moody backdrop to the retro vibe of “Blonde Over Blue,” and urban grittiness to jazzier band workouts like “Big Man On Mulberry Street” and “Zanzibar,” with the latter two perhaps the best showcases of his band —- especially the horn section-— for the evening.
The show (and, in response, the audience) found another gear when Joel and band charged into “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from 1977’s "The Stranger," with the set also including a spare “Always A Woman”, and an energetic run through “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” from that career-changing release.
The performer also brought a hard-charging energy to “The Entertainer,” but the concert’s most powerful moment came when a soulful Joel, accompanied by crowd favorite saxophonist Mark Rivera, delivered “New York State Of Mind,” -- and the audience sang every word (as they did throughout the evening).
Backstage, Joel admitted that the reception—and delivery—for "New York" has evolved since it was first released on "Turnstiles" in 1976. “That song means a different thing to people now,” he said. “After 9-11 it became anthemic, I think. Then we did it after Hurricane Sandy, and it was kinda like a hometown booster song, not ‘start spreading the news,’ but more of a bluesy standard.”
While Joel says he’s “more of a baritone now,” he effortlessly hit all his high notes, including an impromptu romp through Michael Jackson's “Billie Jean” during sound check. Though certainly not the rock ‘n roll piano wild man of a couple decades ago, Joel is clearly at the top of his game, and by the time he wrapped the set with perhaps his most defining track, “Piano Man” (intro’d with the coda from Eric Clapton’s “Layla”), the audience —- and Joel-— seemed ready for more. They’ll get just that every month as the Garden’s newest franchise is playing at championship level.
BILLY JOEL'S JAN. 27 MADISON SQUARE GARDEN SET LIST:
Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)
Summer, Highland Falls
The Longest Time
Blonde Over Blue
Everybody Loves You Now
All For Leyna
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Where's The Orchestra?
Big Man On Mulberry Street
New York State Of Mind
She's Always A Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
The River Of Dreams
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
Layla (Piano Coda)
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young