From the pedicabs blasting “Uptown Girl” to the downtown girl handing out free joints, every block around MSG was in Friday-night party mode for Billy Joel. All of his sold-out gigs at Madison Square Garden are special, but this particular record-breaker was ceremoniously recognized. Last night marked his 80th consecutive show and 126th lifetime show at the Garden, which is why Joel was joined on stage by New York Rangers Adam Graves and Mike Richter two songs in. The champs raised a blue banner commemorating “a residency that more than one million people have had the privilege of experiencing.” Joel shrugged with a delightfully chill expression that seemed to say Who’s counting? and got right back to work with “Just the Way You Are.” The all-age audience were in their element, creating a mass of frenetic enjoy-this-moment energy. Seasoned fans discussed setlist expectations from past shows; kids stomped and somersaulted on their seats; generations in between took a comical number of mid-show selfies, undoubtedly blurred by hyped dancing spectators.
The vertical-panel screens above the stage provided pops of color, scenery, close-ups, and very hypnotically, a live birds-eye view of the piano keys tessellated 12 times. Perhaps the most gallant walk-on song possible – Randy Newman’s “The End Title” from The Natural – heightened the rapturous veneration when Joel first appeared. Fans reacted as if they were greeting a descending deity, and he effortlessly lived up to the cheers. It’s crazy to consider that Billy Joel just turned 73, because he’s in great shape and still rocking – as in twirling the mic stand and hurling it across the stage rocking. One might wonder if an artist with so many performances under their belt ever gets bored or goes through the motions, but that seems impossible when you’re witnessing him in action. Joel’s hit-laden 26-song show was filled with fun moments, like in “I Go to Extremes” when he spun around to play his already-spinning piano with his ass (a time-honored move that appeared in a ‘93 recap too). While he could easily sink into the starring role, Joel does the opposite and generously spotlights the pros in his band – among them, the crowd-thrilling Crystal Taliefero on sax, vocals, and percussion, lead guitarist Tommy Byrne, keyboardist David Rosenthal, saxophonist Mark Rivera, trumpeter Carl Fischer, and drummer Chuck Burgi. He was also supported by the multitalented Michael DelGuidice, who sang a showstopping cover of Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun dorma.”
Billy Joel may use self-deprecating humor as a trick to ease and please, or he may really still get nervous. Either way, it’s exactly the humble vibe you want, as opposed to that of some supercilious showman. “Anyway, this next song,” he announced, “Oh, okay, I’ve got to be careful in this next song. There’s a high note that if I don’t hit it, you’re gonna, like, cringe. So you’ll know if I missed the note. It’ll be obvious and you can boo and all that shit. I will accept the booing if I miss that note, okay?” That cute warning preceded “An Innocent Man,” and he nailed the challenging vocals from a standing position, pulling big swells of screams with each high note. He even gave us a little Britney Spears after that one, but only for a second. “I wrote that a while ago. Things have changed,” he said singing, “I’m not that innocent” (from “Oops!…I Did It Again”) and adding sternly, “No, I’m not.” Other treats included the “Ode to Joy” prelude to “My Life,” the full-venue freak-out to “Only the Good Die Young,” and the epic “New York State of Mind” right in the heart of New York City. It’s a surreal experience that summons that ineffable big-apple magic whether or not you’re a local. If you are a transplant, you might suddenly remember why you wanted to move here. And if that doesn’t do it, “Zanzibar” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” will.
NYC emphasized certain lines with unforgettable passion – like “Don’t asssk for favors / Don’t taaalk to strangers” (in “Don’t Ask Me Why”), ol’ “Mister Cacciatore’s” and “Hackensack” (in “Movin’ Out”), and the alliterative “carelessly cut you” (in “She’s Always a Woman”). Sometimes you can enjoy a song your whole life without knowing what a nimble feat it is live. That realization hit hard when the piano man placed a familiar apparatus around his neck. Watching him pull off harmonica and keys in tandem for “Piano Man” was even better than the big unison singalong about the bread in the jar. As MSG erupted with affection, Joel acted like his band had fled against his will, mouthing the words “Where did they all go?” before he gave in and briefly disappeared too. The darkened sold-out Garden turned into a jar of fireflies as fans begged for more with phone flashlights and lighters aloft. Of course, this rocker loves his five-song encores, so we got a supercharged run of “We Didn’t Start the Fire, “Uptown Girl, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Big Shot,” and “You May Be Right” with a tag of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Sweeping his gaze around his hallowed stomping ground, Billy Joel’s warm expression reflected the advice he shared earlier last night. “It’s a great job. I would recommend this job to anybody.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley