“This place sounds a lot better than the old Colisuem,” Billy Joel commented early in his gig at the reopening of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday (Apr. 6). “Got a lot more ambiance to it.”
As someone who’d graced the old Coliseum as a performer more often than many in attendance had ever visited as a customer, he’d certainly know. Joel had played the Long Island, New York, venue 32 times in its original incarnation — the 32nd time being the final concert held in the space before it was closed for renovations in 2015. (T-shits bearing the number 33 were sold at concession stands to commemorate the occasion of the legendary singer-songwriter once again adding to his historic tally.)
Even if he had no connection to the specific building, Billy Joel would have been a head-smackingly obvious choice of performer to reopen the 2.0 version of the Coliseum. As a Nassau County resident for the majority of his youth, and one who has repeatedly repped for the Island over the course his tremendously successful 50-year career, he’s come to soundtrack the lives of multiple generations of LIRR commuters. Even if Margaritaville had its own hockey arena and Jimmy Buffett played its opening night, it’s hard to imagine it would inspire greater hometown allegiance than Nassau Coliseum had with Billy Joel on Wednedsay night.
“He’s Long Island’s chosen son, its favorite son — it was a natural fit to have him close [the Coliseum], and have him open it again,” Keith Sheldon, SVP of Programming for Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment (which will manage and operate the new Coliseum) tells Billboard before the show. “I think it was important for all of us to make Billy part of this opening night.”
From the scene at the re-opened Coliseum — which bears a strong stylistic resemblance to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, also operated by Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment — it seems pretty important to the fans as well. Even an hour before the show, the building’s halls were so packed that attempting to explore concession options quickly proved fruitless. Billy Joel tour t-shirts and custom-made jerseys abounded, and out among the floor seats, everywhere you looked, there were couples in their 40s or 50s snapping selfies. The atmosphere was so communal that it felt more like an extended family reunion than a rock concert. “This is a fantastic market, and we feel like to date it’s been completely underserved,” Sheldon says, and the crowd’s fervor proved him right for at least one night.
Finally, just before 8:30, Joel took the stage to the strains of Randy Newman’s theme to The Natural. After kicking off his show with the high-stakes drama of the blithely apocalyptic “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” and the cartoonishly anxious “Pressure,” Joel did his fans the favor of letting them know what they were in for: “A sampling of all the albums over the years.” That prelude was met with hesitant applause from fans, as if to nervously respond, “…all the albums?”
But you forget sometimes that even though Billy’s been around for five decades, he’s only ever released 12 solo LPs — 13 if you count 2001’s classical excursion Fantasies and Delusions — and ten songs into Wednesday’s gig, he’d already accounted for nine of ’em, with zero of the era-swerving whiplash you might fear. The beneficial thing of Joel having not released a new vocal album in nearly a quarter-century is that the chronology of his songs — and any Step Brothers-esque hard-line distinction between his various eras — has become increasingly irrelevant; they’re all oldies at this point anyway.
What has become a recent fixture of Joel live sets, he gave the Coliseum audience a voice in choosing part of his set list early on, letting them decide between two selections from his diamond-selling ’77 blockbuster The Stranger: “The first choice was a hit single, called ‘Just The Way You Are.’ The second is an album track. It’s called ‘Vienna.'” If it sounded like a trick question, it probably was — despite the former being one of his biggest pop hits, Joel has often expressed his distaste for performing the love song inspired by his now-ex wife. To their credit, the audience played ball, cheering a clear roar of preference for the deep cut “Vienna.”
For much of the concert, it seemed like it was going to be a “Vienna” kind of night. Billy Joel has scored 13 top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100, but it took him 15 songs to actually get to one of them on Wednesday — instead, fans were treated to lesser-known gems like the Steely Dan-tastic “Zanzibar,” the gut-wrenched new wave of “All for Leyna” and the galloping, bilious early jam “Everybody Loves You Now.” It was a commendable show of trust between performer and audience, Joel diving into the vault because he was confident his hometown fans could handle the depths, and the crowd maintaining their energy throughout because they were pretty certain he’d get to the hits soon enough.
Sure enough, they don’t give you a three-year Madison Square Garden residency just for digging in your own crates. About halfway through, Joel flipped the switch on his set, and from there on out it was pretty much nothing but straight heat from his seemingly inexhaustible Greatest Hits Vol. I & II sets. (He also brought out fellow Long Islander Joan Jett to throw a couple of her own smashes, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “I Love Rock and Roll,” on the pile.) The thing that really stands out about Joel’s big singles when played live is how many of them begin with an instantly recognizable sound effect: The train whistle of “Allentown,” the synthcopters of “Goodnight Saigon,” the broken glass of “You May Be Right.” Given how the most exciting part of any live performance is the moment when you first recognize what song is coming next, those intros serve pretty well to get fans hyped before the songs really even begin.
Joel kept his stage banter relatively minimal — especially once he reached the Solid Gold part of the set — and wisely declined to puff up the night’s importance more than necessary. Still, he did well to swell the room’s sense of civic pride with short stories of playing at nearby bars and battles of the bands, and performed some necessary room-pandering after introducing 1993’s “No Man’s Land” as a song about Long Island. (“We kind of have an attitude here” — sure.)
He also made sure the fans in back of him — the concert was performed as something of a 360-degree show, with Joel’s piano rotating throughout the set to let all in attendance get a good look — were shouted out, pointing out that at least they were “probably closer here than the people in Suffolk County,” gesturing to the fans at the stadium’s far end. “Hope you guys didn’t pay too much,” he offered. “Actually, you all paid too much.”
During his sparse talk breaks, Joel mostly avoided discussion of anything all that topical. It would’ve perhaps been unrealistic to expect the singer-songwriter to comment on how his fellow New Yorker has been doing in the White House lately — the closest thing to a political statement made throughout the night was a number of veterans appearing onstage during “Goodnight Saigon.” But considering Joel’s undying love for rock’s early days, it’s a little surprising that there was no reference made to Chuck Berry in his first New York concert after the rock pioneer’s death — though he did apparently reference “Johnny B. Goode” during a Nebraska performance of “River of Dreams” back in March. Regardless, perhaps the piano man is acutely aware of his responsibility to help people forget about life for awhile, and figures we can get enough death and destruction outside the stadium walls.
After a triumphant six-song encore — beginning with the citation-needed history-rock of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and closing with a scorching version of “You May Be Right” that also featured a brief dip into Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and some backup dancing by Kevin James (don’t ask) — Joel offered his fellow Islanders some invaluable words of wisdom: “Don’t drink and drive… do what I do, drink and jump into a limousine.” The sentiment could’ve come off tone-deaf against a crowd largely reflecting Joel’s working-class roots, but it’s doubtful anyone would hold it against him — as long as the limo keeps dropping Billy back in Long Island when his people need him.