Above: Billy Joel, left, with his agent of 37 years, Dennis Arfa, president of Artist Group International.
“It’s up to them,” said Billy Joel last night in the wings of Vanderbilt University’s Langford Hall, gesturing toward the waiting audience moments before taking the stage. The “them” he was referring to was the audience of 1,000 who had come to see “Billy Joel: An Evening of Questions & Answers and a Little Bit of Music,” and what depended on them was, basically, how well the night came off. Judging by Joel’s enthusiasm, energy and candor, they delivered.
Apart from a rousing performance at the “12-12-12” Hurricane Sandy benefit last month, Joel has been off the touring trail for the last couple of years, and has only a handful of appearance (including the New Orleans JazzFest) booked so far this year, so Vanderbilt’s Programming Board snagged quite a coup in bringing Joel to town. And it was anything but a conventional concert, made up primarily of Vandy students.
Backstage, most of the Nashville music scene was not in evidence, but several of Joel’s long time associates made the trip, including Dennis Arfa, president of Artist Group International and Joel’s agent for 37 years, and veteran tour manager Max Loubiere. Also spotted were lighting director Steve Cohen (who made sure some Prince’s Hot Chicken in the house), sound engineer Brian Ruggles, piano tech Wayne Williams, archivist Jeff Schock (who indeed recorded some killer material), and security chief Noel Rush, who enjoyed a relatively easy night. Folklorist Bill Ivey, formerly director of the Country Music Foundation and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Bill Clinton.
Using a green laser to choose from the many raised hands for some two hours, a highly animated Joel answered questions with humor and insight, and illustrated his points with two pianos, both stocked with volumes of lyrics from his 40-year career.
With tickets at a reasonable $15 a clip, why did Joel do this performances when sold-out arenas could have offered him a six-figure payout? “I always said if I ever got successful I would try to help young people,” he said early in the presentation. “I made every mistake you can make, and I’m here to tell the tale.”
Joel hasn’t released an album of new songs since 1993’s “River Of Dreams,” before more than a few in the audience were even born, but he did hint that more songs may be forthcoming. “I may write songs again,” he says. “I never closed that door.”
The longevity of the songs already in his canon was demonstrated by the enthusiasm with which they were greeted, as Joel played “She’s Got a Way” (featured on his just-released “Love Songs” compilation), “The Entertainer,” “Vienna,” and “Only the Good Die Young,” using the songs to answer questions or make a point rather than following any sort of traditional set list. His vocals were in premier form, and his piano chops in full power.
Asked about his longevity, Joel says, “I don’t think I’m that good. I’m competent. When I was coming up there were a lot of people that were incompetent. So if I’m competent in an era of incompetence, then I’m extraordinary.”
Joel did have other reasons to be in Nashville, apparently, saying he had recorded in town the day previous with Johnny Mathis. “There are some good players here,” he says. That point was made even clearer later on. A young man from the audience, presumably a student, asked Joel if he could come on stage and play “New York State of Mind” with Joel, who promptly answer, “OK.” With Joel putting on his Ray Bans and taking the vocals, the pair played the oft-covered classic as though they’d been doing it together for years, with “Mike” delivering riff-laden chops equal to (OK, exceeding) Joel’s own. As "Mike" left the stage to a standing ovation, Joel quipped, “Now THAT’S how you get to be a horn player in New York,” referring back to an earlier question.
Another highlight came when Joel was asked if he’d written any songs about fatherhood or his daughter, singer/songwriter Alexa Rae Joel, and Joel responded with a story about having to reluctantly tour for financial reasons after his daughter was born, playing “Temptation” for the first time in front of an audience. He also revealed that “Only the Good Die Young” started out as a reggae song, based on a girl in his neighborhood, and was banned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “If you want a hit record, get it banned,” he advised.
One question came from highly regarded multi-instrumentalist/vocal arranger Crystal Taliefero, notable for her work live and in the studio with Joel, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and others. Taliefero asked Joel, a Long Island native, if the “12-12-12” benefit for Hurricane Sandy had inspired him to write any music. Joel responded with an instrumental piece, “a hymn to Long Island,” adding that he, “may write some words” to the powerful melody.
Joel didn’t limit the music to his own. At one point, while discussing the songwriting process, he drifted off into a Beatles land, performing “In My Life,” and a spot-on “Day in the Life,” describing the songwriting as, “so rich and so different and so…good.”
As was properly demonstrated at Langford Auditorium, the same could be said for Joel’s own music, as a small crowd, on a cold, windy Wednesday night in Nashville, was treated to a rare and memorable performance.