Last year Elton John, this year Billy Joel. Bonnaroo’s had some master piano man headliners lately, and Joel did his best to hit the mark set by Sir Elton in 2014. Songs once written for piano bars are a tough sell for closing Bonnaroo, but the Piano Man knows a thing or two about sending huge crowds of people home happy. The jovial 90-minute performance began with “My Life” and ended with a joke about his drunk driving past, so it’s safe to say the Tennessee farm enjoyed its dose of New York retromania.
The Bonnaroo main stage is a long way from Madison Square Garden, and even Billy gave a few wide-eyed glances around the festival grounds in the early going. By the time he took the stage at 9 p.m., all other performances had ended, leaving the vast expanse of world-weary Bonnaroovians to wander somewhere in the vicinity of the massive main stage. In other words, there were a ton of people. A couple songs in, Joel gasped, “Some of you have been here for three days, huh?” (virtually the entire crowd was on its fourth). Being the narrative-inclined 66-year old he is, he compared it to Woodstock: “I didn’t play; I was just there. I guess this is what it was like…. Anyone making babies out there?”
The hits were predictably great, but sharing in Joel’s whimsical stage presence was an absolute treat, even if some of the routines do feel a bit rehearsed. Watching Joel wield a flyswatter and say things like “I’ll get him next time” and then pick up a guitar and rock out “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is life-affirming in an awesome way, regardless of what you think of the song. Earlier, he called out his 34-year veteran roadie “Chainsaw” to cover AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with him and presented it as a novelty, though YouTube proves he’s done it a bunch of times before. Still, though — watching Billy Joel strut around a stage with a red Gibson while wearing a suit, alongside a tatted-up, middle-aged tough guy roadie in shorts with a comprably formidable belly was a trip for all involved, and proves the 66-year old knows what “going viral” means.
Even for a legendary headliner, playing after Florence + the Machine on the Bonnaroo main stage is a challenge. How do you follow up a young and limber festival pro who jumps into the crowd every third song? Joel’s set lacked that energy, as well as the arena-made rock of a headliner like Mumford & Sons, so it’s understandable that it got a lukewarm reception in the audience’s outer reaches.
At 66, Joel’s vocals aren’t exactly overpowering, so all the pomp and circumstance — in addition to a crack backing band — built the show up to be worthy of Piano Man caliber. Billy Joel veterans who frequent his MSG shows know what they’re getting, but out at Bonnaroo, a majority of first-time fans got to witness the superstar sax solos of Mark Rivera and maniacal percussion of Crystal Taliefero. Billy’s crew has got his back.
“Piano Man” closed out the first movement, and a few minutes later, the band returned for a go-big-or-go-home encore that ended with “Only the Good Die Young.” The Bonnaroo schedule indicated Joel was on until 11:30, so much of the crowd refused to believe the gig had wrapped at 10:45 (a stripped-down “For the Longest Time” closing performance would have been sweet) but alas, the ceremonial fireworks bursted, and the book closed on Bonnaroo 2015.
For an artist that hasn’t released a new studio album since 1993 and plays the same venue so often, Bonnaroo was a welcome new wrinkle for Billy Joel, as a multitude of first timers got to share in something that was relatively new for him, too.
And then there was that closing line: “Don’t drink and drive! Do what I do — drink and get a big limousine.”
Everybody Loves You Now
All For Later
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
Sometimes a Fantasy
She’s Always A Woman To Me
Don’t Ask Me Why
Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover)
We Didn’t Start the Fire
The River of Dreams
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young