Billy Joel & Axl Rose Reflect on Their History Together Before Rocking Dodger Stadium

Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden
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Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden on July 20, 2016 in New York City.  

About 20 minutes before Billy Joel was to take the stage at a packed Dodger Stadium on Saturday night (May 13), Axl Rose -- looking like a pirate in layers of leather and thrift shop threads -- materialized with a grin in Joel's breezy backstage haunt. Joel greeted him familiarly -- they'd already consulted on the two songs they'd perform together -- and they briefly reminisced about a late '80s meet-up at the Roxy when Axl's Guns N' Roses was the new big thing and the girls at the Roxy were lining up to meet him.

They touched on Axl's gift to Billy after the Long Islander's emergency kidney stone operation -- a bottle of Jack Daniel's -- and Joel assured Rose he would be terrific covering AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" (and later in the set, "Big Shot"). Rose has been on the road this year but he was plainly a bit nerved up on this occasion. "I just," he said, eyes widening, "wanna do my job."

Before the night wrapped, he did just that, as did P!nk in her guest spot. She delivered her lines on "New York State of Mind" with a winning confidence that set the entire ball park aglow. She also brought some Ray Charles turns out of singing partner Joel, before soaring on her own aching ballad "Try," with harmony added by the Joel band's Crystal Taliefero.

Only a craftsman (and band) that knew they could fully deliver on the legend's meat-and-potatoes hits might dare to bring on such fearsome, if friendly, competition. Considering the artist in question started out in 1973 a few miles east, the present day Joel touring machine can scale up quite comfortably. Joel's longtime associates include lighting designer (and general aesthetician) Steve Cohen and sound man Brian Ruggles (the original P!nk connection), so sound and spectacle are state of the art. 

Intriguingly, the band who can pound the show open with "Movin' Out" and slap down a quick, convincing snack of Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" in "You May Be Right" can also morph to the quiet moods of what's become a stealth crowd favorite nationwide, "Vienna." (Rose took time to praise the songwriter backstage as his go-to mood-altering refresher when he needs an emotional boost.) Utility player Mike DelGuidice, who was recruited from a Joel cover band in part to shiplap with Joel's own vocals on notes that have made age more challenging, was given a moment to deliver Puccini's poignant, arching "Nessun Dorma," with Joel returning to his own classical roots to accompany him on piano.
With the bandleader having turned 68 four days before the show, the issue of age was sooner nodded to rather than avoided. "So this is where the Dodgers ended up," Joel mused before going into his jazziest number, "Zanzibar," adding that once they moved, "I became a f--king Yankees fan …now I'm a Mets fan and I miss the Dodgers.…"

Joel now seems to regard his series of tour sweeps with Elton John as the slightly regrettable product of marketing schemes, and he took time to joke about John playing L.A. "with his Donald Duck outfit on" and going on to mock the phrase "Don't have much money" in a mush-mouthed parody of "Your Song."

In a concert that saw only one sonic snafu, a clanking false start on "Allentown" that Joel ID'd as a "genuine rock n' roll fuck-up," the singer made bold with vocal forays that went from falsetto to bass-y on the intricately harmonized "Longest Time" (the crowd's choice over "Innocent Man," which demands some rather stratospheric notes in its own right), and turned again to doo-wop harmonies for a section of "River of Dreams" that briefly gave way to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

At 2.5 hours, with a slightly delayed start to accommodate the fans who were grinding uphill in long lines for costly parking, Joel gave the 46,000 fans who paid between $49.50 and $139.50 a genuine surfeit of top 10 hits among the set's 25 songs -- not that he didn't have 10 or even 20 more that would have been readily recognized. Having already nodded to various local themes when he did his Hollywood Bowl show in May 2014, he left aside "Los Angelenos" but went after the horn-fueled propulsion of the Phil Spector-esque "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" with zeal. When it was followed by the randy, thumping "Sometimes A Fantasy" -- strobes erupting frantically as drummer Chuck Burgi piston-footed along -- followed by Rose's AC/DC turn, the set found its rocking center. 

Soon enough Joel modulated to the indispensable "Scenes from An Italian Restaurant," his self-declared favorite, briefly ducked away after his signature "Piano Man," and poured energy into the five-song encore. 

Joel's choice for a closer, "You May Be Right," was a bit of a statement. From tickling out lounge standards in that Koreatown bar through a passel of career and personal vicissitudes, Joel has remained the man with no apologies for abandoning pop song composition and converting smoothly to the mountain-top concert draw he remains. (His Madison Square Garden residency will see its 46th installment later this month). "You wouldn't want me any other way," he exulted in 1978 on "You May Be Right." "Now think of all the years you tried to / Find someone to satisfy you" he sang then -- and judging by the joyous tumult of the crowd sprawled before him, he had once again delivered as promised.