The true mettle and value of a musician is how naturally he can perform live. And on stage, Billy Joel is one of pop music's best, a seasoned veteran who's genuine, at ease and funny.
There are no elaborate dance numbers, no over-the-top sets, no trickery, explosions or guitar-smashings. It's just Billy and his top-notch, eight-member band on a simple but classy set -- with large video screens and color lighting ... and 20-plus classic rock/pop songs that have made up the soundtrack of many lives.
So when Joel, clad in a sharp black suit with red-and-black tie, took the stage Saturday night at Nationals Park in Washington to a sold-out crowd, we thought we knew what to expect. And as the lights turned down for his entry, the crowd was roaring in anticipation (especially after opening act Gavin DeGraw's extraordinarily loud 45-minute set).
Billy emerged, with electric guitar strapped around his neck, and it was suddenly clear this was not your usual Billy Joel concert: He's not sitting behind the piano. In recent years and tours, Billy has opened with the frenetic, piano-pounding "Prelude/Angry Young Man" or the sonic adventure "Miami 2017," but this night he began the show with 1986's "A Matter of Trust," with guitar firmly in hand. An interesting and surprising treat it was.
By the second song, Billy was at the piano, greeting the Washington crowd, and plunging into "Pressure," the 1982 hit from "The Nylon Curtain" with its manic, hypnotic synthesizer riff. And off we went, ready to follow Joel wherever he took us.
He ventured into "The Entertainer" (from 1974's "Streetlife Serenade"), a semi-autobiographical song about the possibilities of fleeting fame and the trappings of a money-hungry music industry. And then he headed into the surprise-surprise-surprise performance of "An Innocent Man" (from 1983's album of the same name), in which Billy quipped that we'd know the song was live and not tape, since, now 30 years after having written it, his voice has deepened a bit (spoken in his best Barry White impression). The song features soaring high notes that are beyond his present-day range. But he pulled it off well, despite his warnings of not knowing how it would go, and delivered it standing, center stage, at a microphone -- with requisite finger-snapping at all the right times. Billy's terrific keyboard player, David Rosenthal, sat at the piano to play in the singer's stead.
As he often does, Joel mentioned matters relevant to the town in which he's playing. He congratulated the D.C. crowd on their baseball team being in first place. "Must be nice," he said ruefully, perhaps referring to his Yankees, who trail the (also) first-place Orioles in the standings. Or perhaps he was referring to the fourth-place Mets. (Either way, that's a fight you'll have to be willing to lose, BJ.)
Before launching into "Downeaster Alexa" (from 1989's "Storm Front"), Joel courteously said that this next song could very well be "for the guys who work on the Chesapeake Bay," a nod to the struggling and hard-working Bay fishermen. He, too, remarked that he was able to meet some of the watermen on Tilghman Island -- a nice Maryland mention.
To satisfy all tastes, the evening featured a healthy mix of crowd-pleasing hits and deeper album tracks. He offered up the usual, expected tunes, like 1977's toe-tapping, percussive "Movin' Out" with spot-on sax from Mark Rivera, Crystal Taliefero and Carl Fischer; the encyclopedic "We Didn't Start the Fire" (1989) ("One of the worst melodies I ever wrote," Billy said, to describe the lyric-written-first tune); the guitar-fueled "Big Shot" (1979); and sax-filled "You May Be Right" (1980) and "Only the Good Die Young" (1977).
More surprising digs from the songbook included the previously mentioned "An Innocent Man" and "The Entertainer," as well as the jazzy "Zanzibar" (1978), the not-oft performed "She's Always a Woman" (1977) and "Don't Ask Me Why" (1980), and the Christie Brinkley-inspired "Uptown Girl" (1983), with its sweet harmonies.
Part of the fun of a Billy Joel concert is the humor he shares with his audience. He's long been known for his quick wit and dry humor -- in concert, in interviews, in sound-checks. He's a comedian: very clever, always playful and sometimes self-deprecating. This night was no exception.
It's often those little moments and passing comments that turn a great show into a fantastic show -- at least for this fan. Those bits of humor and playfulness make me remember a show long after it's passed.
I can clearly recall seeing him in 2008 in Hershey, Pa., and just before he came on the stage, the video screens played a montage of old clips of Joel -- when he wore a younger man's clothes. He was a bit slimmer, a bit more agile, had a bit more hair on his head. So as he emerged on stage and sat at the piano, he dryly said, "Hi, I'm Billy's dad. Billy is at home, brushing his hair."
And at Nats Park Saturday night, Billy the comedian was back. Early in the show, he noticed that perhaps the two large video screens on either side of the stage were a bit glitchy in projecting images to the crowd, so he asked the audience if we were seeing him on those massive screens. He commented that he knows he looks just like his dad, and that he doesn't really want to look like his dad. (Said in jest, yes. And if you've ever seen a picture of the late Howard Joel, you'll think you're looking at Billy.)
Although Joel doesn't offer the same energetic live show as he used to (mind you, he's 65 and has two new hips) -- he used to run and jump around the stage, do handstands off of the piano, climb the wires and ropes -- he is still a lively performer.
His playfulness was evident throughout the evening. And despite the fact that he may have privately still been mourning the recent loss of his mother, Rosalind, Joel seemed as playful as always.
Here are some fun, playful and standout moments from the concert, in no particular order:
- Joel's impression of Marlon Brando: "Thank you very much," he said in his best raspy, "Godfather" Vito Corleone voice, after ending "Downeaster Alexa."
- His tossing around the mic stand and offering some Elvis gyrations on "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" (with two new hips!)
- His adding new lyrics to songs -- as in the end of "Big Shot," singing how you had to have just "one more margarita! Two more margaritas!"