When Billy Joel settled into his seat in front of a grand black piano at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night (Jan. 11), his 37th stint at the venue since he launched the residency in 2014, he didn’t stick to a script. With a lengthy set list that mirrored the Billy Joel section of a karaoke book, Joel often asked the audience to dictate what he would perform, allowing them to choose between two possible songs. Sadly, the selection didn’t include “Honesty” or “Just The Way You Are” (as this second-generation Joel admiree had hoped) but heart-pounding renditions of album cuts like 1980’s “All For Leyna” (which beat “Sleeping with the Television On” off the Glass Houses album) and the jazzy “Zanzibar” (which won over “Big Man on Mulberry Street”) were the people’s choice.
The Hicksville native, 67, who recently celebrated five decades in the business and has clocked in 12 albums’ worth of rock and roll fused with jazz, doo-wop, soul and countless other influences, catered to every age group, from the 20-somethings whose parents’ playlists had rubbed off on them to the silver-haired couples in attendance. He also performed the songs he fancied as well. “It’s a great job, I ain’t gonna bitch about it,” he said before vowing to switch up his run-of-show. “If you’ve been here multiple times, we’ll try to do different stuff tonight.” As promised, he revisited the 1993 album River of Dreams LP and performed “a song we ever hardly ever do,” the album’s second single “All About Soul.” Joel even covered material that wasn’t his own, including classic rock standards like Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” Eagles “Take It Easy” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” (“Sometimes you wanna play that shit,” Joel said at one point.)
During the nearly three-hour show, Joel admitted that he often picks favorites from his discography based on his mood. He recently named his top five tracks on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, ditching most of the obvious singles and opting for the likes of “Vienna,” “And So It Goes,” “You May Be Right,” “She’s Right on Time” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Before launching into “Vienna” at the Garden, he said, “I just kind of said what came to the top of my head at the time — the problem is they’re different every day. Some days, I like some songs. Some days, I like other songs.”
Luckily, attendees embraced every entry from Joel’s live catalog. Even in what Joel described as the “mushy ballad” section, his slower-tempo offerings like 1971’s “She Got a Way” and 1977’s “She’s Always a Woman” elicited the same hoots and hollers as the rebellious “My Life” and “Sometimes a Fantasy,” a track that was deemed too risque for radio in the ’80s, according to Joel.
Beyond the humor and fun facts, Joel’s forte was being a narrator of the times. With graphics of the city skyline painted on the jumbo screen, tri-state natives belted along to “Movin’ Out” and the Big Apple classic “New York State of Mind.” The jam-packed, headline-referencing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (which was accompanied by a montage of popular figures that included Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro and Michael Jackson) and the blue-collar working-class paean “Allentown” were testaments to the headliner’s city-slicker tales-turned-arena anthems, which sound at home in any decade.
After bouncing between the piano and harmonica for the finale “Piano Man,” Joel returned to the stage and twirled his microphone stand for a six-song encore, comprised of the aforementioned “Fire,” “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” “Big Shot” and “Only The Good Die Young,” topped with the quintessential drunk-dude singalong “You May Be Right.” Even when Joel cracks that his voice may have been higher when he was 32, the Piano Man’s wide-ranging show proved he’s still in tune with his legacy.