No longer the angry young man but a gray, assured and fiery one, Billy Joel, in his first solo tour in eight years, is proving that he still knows his way around rock’n’roll. Especially for a retired guy.
Next phase, new wave, Broadway-pop, cinematic epics, sped-rapped history lessons: Joel has brought many things to many people over his three-plus decades, though he insists he’s sticking by the “retirement” from writing and recording pop music that he announced following 1993’s “River of Dreams.”
To that end, this early stop on the piano man’s first outing in almost a decade sans Elton John found Joel packing all that he could into an almost two-and-a-half hour show. That included throwing light on some of the cobwebbier corners of his vast catalog (as he did in box set form on last fall’s “My Lives”) in addition to showing that he still knows precisely what to do when his regular crowd shuffles in.
Joel’s Jacksonville show (only the second on a fast-selling tour that already includes six shows at Madison Square Garden) amounted to a full-on victory lap. It was a also a chance to set the tour’s ground rules; early in the 24-song set, Joel threatened experimentation, and that’s what he did (introducing “The Great Wall of China” from 1993’s “River of Dreams,” he cracked, “If you have to go to the bathroom, you should probably go now, because this is really obscure.”) Like Springsteen and McCartney on their most recent outings, Joel’s plan of attack-ack-ack-ack-ack involved more than simply handing out hits (notably absent from the set were “Uptown Girl,” “She’s Always A Woman” and, God bless him, “Just The Way You Are”); he was there in search of long-buried treasure.
Such excavation spanned the first chapters of the show. After the one-two punch of “Angry Young Man” and “My Life,” both big, baroque set pieces which successfully survived the trip from the ’70s (even if those whitewall tires haven’t), Joel began rifling around. He dug up the theatrically sinister “Stiletto,” whose serpentine groove was augmented nicely by Mark Rivera’s sax work and the band’s intimidating-looking finger snaps. Introducing the jazzbo “Zanzibar,” he remarked that after cutting the song in the studio he and his band “felt like adults.” “Sometimes a Fantasy” dripped with gooey synthesizer; “Sleeping With the Television On” worked up a solid, guitar-fueled lather.
But if Joel used the early half of the night for rummaging and evaluation (“That one worked!” he smiled to his band after 1971’s “Everybody Loves You Now”), the late half was reserved for a rock block: “I Go to Extremes,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Big Shot” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” the latter two of which he delivered sporting a backwards ball cap thrown on stage, which was a nice touch. Closing the main set: an ageless and roaring “You May Be Right.” Saved for the encore: “Only the Good Die Young,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and that one about getting his fans feeling alright.
Despite what he indicated in a few age-related gags (those seated behind his rotating piano at any given time, he said, could “check themselves out in the back of my head”), Joel looked fit and sounded better. He dished up a sterling “New York State of Mind” with timeless ease and unleashed “Goodnight Saigon” to even better effect. One can’t help but think that after a few more installments of this quick-selling trek, Joel may want to rethink that business about retirement. He’s already survived the noble fight, and there’s little doubt left that he — and his fans — remain in the mood for his melodies.
Here is Billy Joel’s set list:
“Angry Young Man”
“Everybody Loves You Now”
“New York State of Mind”
“The Great Wall of China”
“Sometimes a Fantasy”
“Sleeping With the Television On”
“An Innocent Man”
“Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel”
“Keeping the Faith”
“I Go to Extremes”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire”
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
“You May Be Right”
“River of Dreams”
“Only the Good Die Young”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”