Billy Joel celebrated his 70th birthday on Thursday night (May 9) with yet another rocking, sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden. “Welcome to my birthday,” said Joel. “This is kind of a weird night,” he added, taking in the sight of the 18,000-plus crowd packing the Garden. “But what else am I gonna do?” he deadpanned.
The sweet irony of Joel’s remarkable career is captured in a lyric from “The Entertainer,” one of the first songs in Thursday night’s set. “I know the game/ You’ll forget my name/ And I won’t be here in another year / If I don’t stay on the charts,” he sang.
Joel long ago stopped chasing pop chart achievement. (His last album of new pop songs, River of Dreams, came out in 1993). Yet he remains one of most beloved and successful artists in pop music, due to his rich legacy of hits and extraordinary talent as a live performer.
Thursday’s show was Joel’s 64th consecutive sell-out at the Garden, a continuation of the record-setting residency he launched in December 2013 (in collaboration with longtime agent, Dennis Arfa, chairman of Artists Group International). The Garden has already announced the 70th show in the residency for Nov. 15. It will be Joel’s 116th all-time performance at the arena.
New York fans — particularly those from Joel’s native Long Island — have a special bond with the artist. “Youse guys!” joked Joel. But the Garden shows are only part of his onstage achievements. In January, Joel announced his sixth consecutive year of stadium shows, including a concert June 22 at Wembley Stadium in London. According to Billboard Boxscore — a chart Joel continues to climb — during 2018, he grossed $70.2 million in ticket sales, playing for 589,813 fans at 24 shows.
Joel offered no monologues about his birthday milestone. But from the show-opening, self-deprecating blast of “Big Shot” to the finale of “You May Be Right,” the songs offered a career’s worth of reflection in nonstop hits and choice album tracks.
Yet this was no oldies show. Joel and his band played with a intensity, vitality and joy that rival any act decades younger, with exceptional lighting and video production. His finely sketched characters — Brenda and Eddie (“Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”), Anthony (“Movin’ Out”) and Davy, who’s still in the Navy (“Piano Man”) — are longtime friends. And these songs are very much alive in the hearts of Joel’s devoted fans. (It’s worth noting that the Garden audience included many younger fans who weren’t yet born when these songs were new).
And what would a birthday party be without best wishes from friends? Throughout the show, video greetings played above the stage from P!nk (singing “Just The Way You Are”), Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Garth Brooks (“You are the only guy on the planet who gains momentum as he grows older”), Don Henley and Paul McCartney. “We love you,” said McCartney. “Happy birthday, Bill.”
Guest artists have become a staple of the Garden concerts. On Thursday, Peter Frampton came out to play “Show Me The Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way,” backed by Joel on piano. Frampton recalled a night, exactly 42 years earlier, when he and Joel met outside a New York club. “I had a limo and he didn’t,” he joked.
But the evening’s most important guests were two singers who came on to serenade Joel with “Happy Birthday”— his daughters Alexa Ray, 34, and 3-year-old Della Rose. (Alexa Ray earlier dueted with her dad on “New York State of Mind.”)
Another nod to the night’s milestone came as the band launched into the opening riff of “Satisfaction” and Joel briefly did his best Mick Jagger prance, before stopping to remark that the Rolling Stones’ frontman “said he didn’t want to do [`Satisfaction’] when he was 70.” (In fact, in 1975 Jagger said he didn’t want to be singing “Satisfaction” when he was 40; he’s now 75). Joel and the band instead played the Stones’ “Start Me Up” full out.
Among his peer group of artists who emerged in the 70s, Joel arguably has the widest musical background and tastes. His love of classical music showed in that snippet of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” which opened “My Life” and the performance of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” sung by guitarist Michael DelGuidice, which has become a staple of his set. Declaring he needed to “warm up” his vocals for his doo-wop tribute “The Longest Time,” Joel sang the Tokens’ version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Runaround Sue” from Dion and the Belmonts.
Some of the show’s best moments were performances of songs that were never hits, like “Vienna,” which Joel has called one of his favorites and “The Downeaster `Alexa’,” written in the voice of a Long Island fisherman facing the loss of his livelihood. “There ain’t no island left for Islanders like me,” he sang. (Joel’s commitment to his native Long Island is steadfast; last month his joined New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a beachfront press conference for the signing of legislation banning offshore drilling in the state’s waters).
The concert’s conclusion came with four high-energy hits: the historical rap of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (with its rapid-fire lyrics first revealed in Billboard in 1989); “Uptown Girl” (Joel’s tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons); “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and a version of “You May Be Right,” with Frampton on guitar and DelGuidice singing a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”
But the emotional highlight of the evening came just before that encore, inevitably, with “Piano Man.” Joel strapped on his harmonica brace, played the song’s iconic opening notes, paused, caught his breath, then smiled. Once more it was “9 o’clock on a Saturday” and the regular crowd was shuffling in. It is the career-launching song of a musician who forms a special bond with his listeners, not with recordings, but with live performances, night after night. During the final verse, Joel stopped singing to let the crowd take the vocals. Receiving that 70th birthday gift from his fans, his expression was pure delight.