Billy Joel has done over fifty concerts at Madison Square Garden over the years. He has been in residence there for the past few years, playing shows on the average of two to three a month, with his sixtieth show coming up this January. Being a guitar guy and realizing Billy Joel is The Piano Man, it seems kind of an oxymoron that I would be a fan, but I am. There is still plenty of cool guitar in Billy’s songs such as “Big Shot”, “Movin’ Out” and “The Stranger.” To me, certain artists transcend musical genres. Billy Joel had a string of hits stretching back from the early seventies until the early nineties, about the same time frame as his English counterpart, Elton john did. The two are friends and have toured together. Billy even played Elton’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” at the concert I attended. I am an Elton fan too, going way back. Both have had some hot guitar players in their band at times, the most tenured being Davey Johnstone, who’s been with Elton going on five decades. Both Billy and Elton could rock as well as play the sentimental ballad – this is probably why their appeal was so widespread. Elton probably sold more records but Billy was no slouch in that department either, but I digress.
This being the Saturday before Halloween, I didn’t really think much about that as I headed to New York on the train. An hour or so later the train pulled into Penn Station and it’s just a short jaunt up the stairs and a left hand turn to get in line to get into MSG. The crowd of mostly white, middle-aged men and women stood in line, patiently waiting their turn to go through the metal detectors before trekking past the t-shirt merchants and into the venue. We made our way to our seats, which were on the second level. As much as I prefer floor seats and as close as possible, there are so many repeat concert goers at these shows that pricing and availability made it difficult, if not impossible to get tickets at that level.
We settle in and wait eagerly for Billy to come on. I was told that Billy comes on promptly at 8 o’clock so we waited, patiently. 8:15 rolls around, then 8:20, finally at 8:30 Billy comes on. He opened up with “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and you could tell it was going to be a fun night. Next, it was “Big Shot” (one of my favorites) and I’ll bet that everyone, including myself looked at the person(s) they came to show with and pointed their finger at them and mouthed “You had to be a big shot, didn’t you?” That was good for a laugh and kind of made everyone relax and settle in to enjoy the show. Next came the early hit, “The Entertainer” as Billy joked how the album it came from “fuckin’ bombed” and that was the only song on it that got any radio airplay. The New York attitude was in full display throughout the night. Billy Joel may be a rich musician but you can tell that deep down, he is a blue collar guy with that (Long Island) New York attitude that comes through when he talks to the audience and in the lyrics to his songs. Dropping f-bombs between songs was common as well as the way he told stories – such as the way he would conduct a “Farewell Tour” in contrast to Elton’s by “putting up a Plexiglas wall around the whole stage and just watch while the audience got pissed off and threw shit at the glass while I sat there watching TV on the couch.” It’s quite humorous to know that deep-down he’s a working-class Joe, just like most of his audience. There’s no pretentiousness with this guy. Next, he played “Summer, Highland Falls” before he really dug into the hits. Did I mention that Billy likes to have fun? After 50-plus concerts at the same venue and with no sign they were going to end anytime soon, I would imagine he would have to enjoy what he was doing or else why do it?
So…it being Halloween, it was time for him to inject a little Halloween humor. All of the sudden he started playing the theme music to the Horror classic “Halloween” leading up to “The Stranger” – a perfect lead in. He happened to have a prop onstage with him in the form of a skull (a fake one I hope.) I tell you, he got more mileage out of that skull; talking to it, moving its jaw up and down and mimicking voices as if the skull were talking to him or him talking to the skull. He carried it around with him on the stage and he sang to it – all making for hilarious diversions. He also played snippets of horror songs between his own such as the theme from :The Addams Family”, complete with the audience knowing exactly when to snap their fingers. It was audience participation like I had never seen before – hilarious! He did a couple of cover tunes such as the aforementioned Elton John song and The Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life.” Then he really settled in and played a string of hits such as “Allentown” (talk about blue-collar) “Don’t Ask Me Why”, “New York State of Mind”, “My Life” and “She’s Always a Woman”. Then Halloween crept back in. Billy started to play “River of Dreams” when half way through he changes gears and dives into the complete “Monster Mash.” He played it as close to the original as possible, complete with his backing band singing the “wah-oohs” and Billy imitating the Boris Karloff-like renderings of Bobby Pickett as per the original, then back to finish the rest of “River of Dreams.” It was an amazing turn of events and if you weren’t having fun by then you truly were the walking dead. Several more hits followed such as “Only the Good Die Young”, “Piano Man” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” The encore flowed with “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Uptown Girl”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right.” I was hoping to hear “A Matter of Trust” when Billy started the encore playing an electric guitar instead of a piano but maybe next time I see him (and I will), he will.
Photo Credit: Marianne P. Stone