Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New York Takes On A Billy Joel State Of Mind

By David Schultz

Without an album of new material to promote, Billy Joel's adopts the theme of his recently released box set My Lives for his 2006 tour, turning the entire show into a comprehensive career retrospective. Taking to the road as a solo act for the first time in seven years, Joel's tour commenced with an auspicious start, selling out New York City's Madison Square Garden for twelve shows scattered throughout the winter and spring. Joel's MSG run will make history as his string of twelve selllouts shatters Bruce Springsteen's record of ten. If 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong, what about a quarter million Billy Joel fans?

Joel always brings something special to his New York City performances which, in the absence of any Long Island appearances, comprise his homecoming. At the very least, "New York State Of Mind" resonates differently in the Big Apple than anywhere else. By embracing his entire career in a 2½ hour concert, Joel displays the numerous songwriting personas he’s adopted over his 35 year career. The straightforward, if not always factually accurate, storyteller ("The Ballad Of Billy The Kid"), the evocative memoirist ("Goodnight Saigon"), socio-political commentator ("Allentown"), the eloquent rouge ("You May Be Right,""Big Shot") and, his least enjoyable guise, the didactic blowhard ("We Didn’t Start The Fire").

When Joel touched upon his seventies material, especially during 52nd Street's "Stiletto" and "Zanzibar," Joel flashed the brilliance that earned him his status in the classic rock pantheon. In contrast, once Joel focused on his post Glass Houses material from the eighties, his descent into poppier, more commercial music took center stage. The bombastic "Movin’ Out" seemed startlingly at odds with the Lion King-esque tribal romp through "River Of Dreams." Where Joel's older material possessed a cocksure, chip on the shoulder attitude, his later material lost the edge as if he no longer had anything to prove to the world. Perhaps being married to Christie Brinkley did wonders for his self esteem?

From his piano bench, Joel spoke to the audience in a relaxed conversational style, giving some insight into his material. With subtlety, he noted the irony present in Cold Spring Harbor's "Everybody Loves You" pointing out that nobody bought the album when it came out in 1971 and, thirty-five years later, the song seems prophetic. During one story, he realized he sounded like he was rehashing his appearance on In The Actor’s Studio before imitating James Lipton's obsequious affectations.

Having played these songs for decades, the more spontaneous moments of the show came when Joel bantered with the audience or played a riff or two from "Boy From New York City" or "Goldfinger." Over the course of the tour, Joel has interspersed obscurer tunes into the set. On this night, Joel included The Nylon Curtain's "She’s Right On Time" and "A Room Of Our Own." The most spontaneous moment came when Joel surprisingly turned over the stage to Chainsaw, a member of the road crew, walking to the side to play rhythm guitar while the roadie blasted through a rollicking version of AC/DC's "Highway To Hell."

Recognizing that he may be more dangerous behind the wheel of a car these days than behind a piano, Joel's self-effacing sense of humor emerged in the encore. After romping through "Only The Good Die Young," Joel offered a slightly re-edited version of "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" that poked fun at his recent rehabilitation stint. After joking that instead of a bottle of red, "perhaps a bottle of ginger ale instead," he further quipped that between red and white, "I won't be having either one tonight." When Joel strapped on the harmonica to the wild delight of the crowd for the finale of "Piano Man," he expressed faux surprise at the hysteria and claimed that the apparatus was required after his latest car accident.

Joel's stage setup, complete with a rotating piano that receded into the stage when not needed, permitted Joel to play to all areas of the arena. While Joel seemed out of synch with his band during the opening renditions of his Long Island rebel anthems "Angry Young Man" and "My Life," they quickly got onto the same page. Joel's piano playing remains crisp and even though he no longer has the same vocal range, he credibly hit the high notes on "An Innocent Man."

Joel's older material formed the basis for the strongest portions of the show. Joel's musical, Movin' Out, presents New Yorkers with alternative versions of his classic songs on an almost daily basis. However, Joel refuses to relinquish his mastery of his catalogue to the Broadway stage. Although Joel no longer has the rebellious, restless demeanor that fueled his seventies classics, he doesn’t let the softening of the years force the evening into maudlin, sentimental nostalgia. Joel doesn’t go through the fa├žade of acting like he’s singing his older songs as if he’s still in his mid-twenties. Rather, instead of feeling a sense of simpatico, he seems to relish singing songs about the old times. As he does with every performance, Joel closed the show by offering the audience his traditional advice, "don't take shit from anyone." Where once that maxim evoked Joel's sense of rebellion, it now seems like a bit of fatherly advice from someone who knows it worked for them.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!