To paraphrase Jay Z: There’s never been another this good for this long. On Wednesday night, Billy Joel played Madison Square Garden for the 65th time, breaking the record for solo performances at the famed New York City arena previously held by his buddy Elton John. It’s been a long road for the 66-year-old Joel, who reminisced during Wednesday’s show about coming to MSG as a five-year-old kid and watching Gene Autry sing “Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer.” Joel sang along that day but didn’t make his proper MSG debut until 1978, the year he released his chart-topping album 52nd Street.
“I want to thank you so much for making this possible,” Joel told Wednesday’s capacity crowd, and indeed, he’s living the dream. In Long Island, where he’s from, most kids grow up dreaming of becoming rock stars yet wind up being New York City commuters. Joel gets to do both, as last year, he began a monthly residency at the Garden that’s helped push him past Elton and way beyond guys like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and yes, Jay Z, who’s headlined MSG fewer than a dozen times. Joel’s residency is slated to continue into 2016, so for the time being, his title is secure.
While Wednesday’s concert was light on surprises, there were lots of great moments. Read on for a recap of the nine best things that happened at the Piano Man’s record-breaking gig.
1. He had to open with “Big Shot,” didn’t he?
Appropriately enough, Billy reached back to 1978 — the year of his first MSG show — for Wednesday’s opening salvo. The part with the horns and “woah-oh-oh” vocals kills every time.
2. The ‘King of Queens’ paid tribute.
The evening’s only special guest was actor and comedian Kevin James, former star of the sitcom The King of Queens. Just before helping to raise a banner commemorating Joel’s accomplishment, James congratulated Billy on edging out Elton. “You beat him by one,” he said. “You beat me by 65.”
3. He gave props to the former record-holder.
The night wasn’t about bagging on Elton, though. One of the highlights was Joel’s cover of John’s 1973 ballad “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” “Damn good song,” said Billy afterward.
4. “For the Longest Time” won the popular vote.
A couple songs later, Joel offered a “fielder’s choice” and let fans vote on which An Innocent Man cut they wanted to hear: the title track or “For the Longest Time.” The latter won by a landslide, and that sent Billy and his band into doo-wop mode.
5. He played a song he’d only performed one other time.
When Joel goes back to 1980’s Glass Houses, it’s usually for the pseudo-New Wave smashes “You May be Right” or “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” or the breezy acoustic jam “Don’t Ask Me Why.” On Wednesday, as a treat to those who dig deeper cuts, he dug out the album’s closer, “Through the Long Night,” a Beatles-esque tune he said he’d only played one other time.
6. He spaced on Sinatra.
Late in the set, Billy teased out a few bars of “New York, New York,” doing his best Frank imitation for a line or two before jokingly singing, “I don’t know any more of it.”
7. “Piano Man” brought the house down, obviously.
One song Billy — and every other man, woman, and child in the tri-state area — still knows the words to is “Piano Man.” Closing out the regular set, Joel’s all-time anthem about luckless boozers had beefy Jersey bros locking arms and bellowing along as they raised their $11 brews.
8. He didn’t actually need any help from his famous friends.
During the encore, Joel fans hoping for a guest appearance by one of Billy’s big-name pals were undoubtedly psyched to hear the opening chords of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Alas, Joel played Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles classic with only the support of his bandmates — most notably multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero-Pratt, who provided some mighty fine background vocals.
9. He finished with some sinning.
Only the good die young; only the really good can have millennials and middle-aged folks alike dancing along to a song released 38 years ago. “Only the Good Die Young” made a fine nightcap for an artist with plenty of life in him.