Last night I had the opportunity to catch Billy Joel in concert at the U.S. Airways Center here in Phoenix. I’d seen Billy Joel three previous times in concert, but not since the 90s and frankly I didn’t buy tickets to last night’s show because I have already spent a ton of money on other live shows this summer. As it turned out, I got lucky and someone backed out at the very last-minute and I ended up with a ticket. All I can say is that I would not have been disappointed had I spent the $125.
Growing up in San Diego I had very few connections to my hometown of New York, so perhaps that’s why I was such a huge Billy Joel fan. I wore out records like The Stranger, 52nd St., Glass Houses and Songs in the Attic and considered Billy Joel my favorite artist. I saw him live for the first time at the San Diego Sports Arena in 1984, and my pal Zac and I wore sports coats with jeans and sneakers to the show in honor of the piano man’s look at the time. I knew pretty much every song by heart and I stayed with him as a fan even through his lean years of albums like Storm Front and The Bridge. Let’s just say I am a huge Billy Joel fan.
I have to admit I was not expecting much last night, which is another reason I didn’t buy tickets. I mean the man is 65 years old and hasn’t put out a rock album since 1993. But the moment the lights went down and I started to hear that piano play I was all in. While I was hoping he’d open with Angry Young Man, which is sort of his signature opening, he instead opened with Miami 2017 from the 1976 album Turnstiles and a song I fell in love with listening to Songs in the Attic in the early 80s. And while he then launched into a great rendition of Pressure, he then went back to his roots to play Vienna from The Stranger album followed by a deep track from 52nd St, the wonderful Zanzibar. I’m not sure Zanzibar has ever been played on the radio, but it is one of my favorite tracks off 52nd St. and it sounded great. 15 minutes into the show and I was transported back to my middle school and high school times.
The rest of the night was like a time warp as Billy worked his way through song after song from the 70s and 80s. He played The Legend of Billy The Kid and then explained how he had no idea what he was writing and basically made up most of the facts about the title character. He played Movin’ Out, New York State of Mind, She’s Always a Woman, My Life, Big Shot, Don’t Ask Me Why, It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me, Allentown, We Didn’t Start the Fire and So It Goes. He closed with Piano Man, then returned for an encore and played You May Be Right and Only the Good Die Young. I think at age 65 he knows he can play whatever he wants and his older songs make him happy. They make me happy too. The highlight of the night for me though was Scenes From an Italian Restaurant from The Stranger. The ballad of Brenda and Eddie has always been not only my favorite Billy Joel song but also one of my all-time favorite songs period.
He also has a great sense of whimsy and humor. A few times he launched into cover songs only to segue into his hits. He played some Led Zeppelin and did a great version of Take it Easy by The Eagles. He let one of his roadies, who is from Arizona, take the stage to perform a raucous version of ACDCs Highway to Hell which he backed on guitar. Halfway through The River of Dreams he launched into Hard Day’s Night and then returned to finish the song. And while he didn’t run around the stage or jump up on his piano like he did when he wore a younger man’s clothes he sounded great and played with great energy. He was, simply, spectacular.
As I begin to explore new hobbies, last night I was reminded that one of the cool hobbies I actually do have is attending concerts. 2014 is shaping up to be a banner year on that front. I already saw Broken Bells, and now Billy Joel. Later this year I have tickets to see Wye Oak at the Crescent Ballroom, Arcade Fire in Los Angeles, an 80s Retro tour featuring Howard Jones, Thompson Twins, Midge Ure and China Crisis, the Tempe Beach Festival with Fitz & The Tantrums, Foster The People and more, and The Black Keys in November. Not too shabby!