Billy Joel Wows In Madison Square Garden 'Franchise' Debut: Joel Backstage & Onstage

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Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden on January 27, 2014 in New York City.

“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.

Billy Joel Begins Madison Square Garden Residency

“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.

Billy Joel Sets MSG Residency

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)
Pressure
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?
Allentown
Big Man On Mulberry Street
New York State Of Mind
Zanzibar
The Entertainer
She's Always A Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
The River Of Dreams
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
Layla (Piano Coda)
Piano Man
Big Shot
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young