It’s been 21 years since Billy Joel released an album’s worth of new material (unless you’re counting his 2001 foray into classical music). And yet, the singer’s Sunday, June 1, US Airways Center concert was his sixth sold-out performance in a row at the 19,000-capacity downtown Phoenix venue.
That’s good work if you can get it. And watching Joel treat the fans to a hit-filled set that spanned the legend’s pop career, from 1973’s “Piano Man” to 1993’s “River of Dreams,” it was easy to see how he’s managed to put those bodies in those seats year after year without a current hit. As much as people like to call him the Piano Man — because, you know, he plays piano and that was his breakthrough single — it’s the title of another early song, “The Entertainer,” that really sums up Joel’s ability to pack a sports arena after all this time. The song itself may be a bit more cynical than that, but the title fits. The man can really work a room.
After setting the tone with a suitably dramatic rendition of “Turnstiles” highlight “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and the New Wave-flavored “Nylon Curtain” single “Pressure,” he welcomed the crowd in the first of several entertaining monologues with jokes about the Phoenix heat, Ted Nugent and his own appearance. Rocking a white goatee with his head shaven clean, he talked about how he didn’t want to look anything like his dad when he grew up but now he looks just like him, joking, “I thought one day I was just gonna pop into Cary Grant or something.” Then, he let the fans vote on his next song — “Summer, Highland Falls” or “Vienna.” The crowd went with “Vienna” and had reason to be glad they did.
Then, out of nowhere, Joel started playing a snippet of “Fool in the Rain” by Led Zeppelin before imitating former touring partner Elton John on “Your Song.” When he got to the part where John sings, “I don’t have much money,” he stopped and said, “Bulls—t.”
From that point out, the set was peppered with impromptu, unexpected covers — from a snatch of the “Layla” piano coda (“I didn’t write it; I wish I did”) to “I’m Into Something Good,” the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” (the Winslow, Arizona reference drawing huge applause), Elmer Bernstein’s theme to “The Magnificent Seven,” “Not Fade Away” as a lead-in to “Don’t Ask Me Why,” “Highway to Hell” with hilarious vocals by a member of his road crew, introduced as Chainsaw from Phoenix, and “A Hard Day’s Night.” “Highway to Hell” boasted one of the funnier spoken introductions of the night (“It’s a religious song. A sacred song. You probably know it from church and s–t.”).
After “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” he explained a handful of historical and geographic holes in his own lyrics, and after a gorgeous “She’s Always a Woman,” he thanked the crowd and with brilliant comic timing said, “And then we got divorced,”
Even with all the hijinks, Joel found time to survey his own catalog, from hits as huge as a triumphant “My Life,” “River of Dreams” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to album tracks that had to feel as much like old friends to his longtime fans, including “Zanzibar,” “New York State of Mind” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (of course).
He didn’t get to all his biggest hits. That would have been impossible and there are some he doesn’t like. Among those neither present nor accounted for were “Just the Way You Are,” the chart-topping “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl” and “An Innocent Man.”
His vocals were surprisingly strong for 65, and he was backed by a versatile collection of musicians (keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, as well as two horn players and a percussionist who joined the horn line on occasion). In addition to those songs already mentioned, highlights ranged from “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” to “Allentown,” “Big Shot” and a spirited romp through “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which featured some truly entertaining mike-stand shenanigans from Joel.
The encore kicked off with opener Gavin DeGraw returning to join in the fun on a suitably raucous “You May Be Right” and the concert ended on a high note with another classic from the ’70s, “Only the Good Die Young.” By that point, Joel had stored up all the good will it would take to earn another sell-out.
Ed Masley, The Republic | azcentral.com