After Billy Joel finished "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" — the fifth song of his two-hour-plus performance at M&T Bank Stadium Saturday night — to huge applause, the 66-year-old singer/songwriter smirked from his center-stage piano chair. He then asked a question, already well aware of the answer.
"You remember that old [expletive], huh?" Joel, dressed in a navy suit, said through his Long Island accent.
All night, the banter remained loose like this, with flashes of background details sprinkled in like a "Storytellers" episode. His first performance in Baltimore since 1977, Joel lived up to his reputation as a conversational showman, often briefly mixing wit and history — both personal and professional — in a charming way. He also offered just enough self-deprecation to remind the audience of his Everyman appeal.
Following the soft-rock ballad "She's Always a Woman," a track inspired by Joel's first wife Elizabeth Weber Small, the singer said, "Yeah, but that relationship didn't work out" in a deadpan tone. An amiable take on divorce — hey, he's just like us! (Or half of us) — earned some of the loudest laughs of the night.
Joel talked some, but essentially did not need to. The Recording Industry Association of America ranks him as the third-best selling solo artist ever with 81.5 million albums sold worldwide, and it was a safe bet to assume nearly all in the crowd had contributed to the tally at some point over the years.
This was an easy-listening sing-along, a karaoke junkie's dream. The depth of Joel's catalog even became a segment the singer returned to a few times. He offered the crowd choices: "Summer, Highland Falls" or "Vienna"? "Zanzibar" or "Hollywood"*? "Keeping the Faith" or "The Longest Time"? Each time, the crowd cheered louder for the second option, and Joel — along with his eight-person backing band — obliged with faithful renditions of songs from decades past.
Some have aged better than others. The melody of "Vienna" stands firm, and "The Downeaster Alexa" — dedicated to the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay going through tough times — retained an appropriate sense of drama. With Joel playing conductor and lead singer, "The Longest Time" impressively filled the stadium with live, four-part harmonies.
But "We Didn't Start the Fire," Joel's breathless ode to newspaper headlines and one of the few times he played electric guitar all night, lacked its famous urgency. The schmaltz of the languid "New York State of Mind" rang a bit hollow.
But these were minor hiccups — similar to Joel bringing out his longtime technician Chainsaw to inexplicably cover AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" — in a night designed to appeal to fans both diehard and peripheral. With the focus firmly set on hits, there was no time for surprising deep cuts. For the entire performance, the audience hung on Joel's every word, from the blue-collar lyrics of "Allentown" to the confidence of "My Life."
The power of Joel — and why he is able to fill stadiums as regularly as he does — remains in the songwriting. Set to undeniably tuneful melodies and often-nimble piano backdrops, his stories are filled with details and snapshots of Americans that feel specific and broad simultaneously. (Fittingly, Joel's inclusion of 11 men in Army and Navy uniforms to sing backup on "Goodnight Saigon" led the crowd to chant "USA!")
No song captures Joel's lasting appeal better than "Piano Man," which he played before a four-song encore that included "Uptown Girl" and "Only the Good Die Young." Rather than show close-up shots of Joel, the stadium's cameras found fans, young and old, singing in the crowd. Many swayed arm-in-arm with friends and family.
The earnestness captured on each face — their bread willingly placed in his jar before the night first's note — reminded that Joel's lasting appeal is not tied to his banter or personality, or the ability to run around the stage as he did decades ago. At this point, he barely moves on stage at all. And that was just fine for a crowd happy to spend a weekend night, under the stars, simply singing along with a comforting, familiar voice.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a song selected by the audience. They chose "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," not "Zanzibar."