“I don’t need you to worry for me ’cause I’m alright
I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home.”
Just before 8:30pm, Billy Joel took the stage of Madison Square Garden, and like every show since his July 1st appearance this past summer, he broke his own record for the most performances by an artist on the stage of “the world’s most famous arena.” He may have been born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, but it’s hard to deny that Billy Joel has been “home” for quite some time. After all, this was his 69th appearance at The Garden.
Over the course of 25 songs and almost two-and-a-half hours, Joel played songs from throughout his twenty-two years of releasing rock n roll albums. The notable exceptions were tracks from his debut, Cold Spring Harbor and Street Life Serenade. But with multiple tracks from both The Stranger (“Vienna,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Only the Good Die Young”) and 52nd Street (“My Life,” “Zanzibar,” “Big Shot”), it would be difficult to find a long-time fan complaining about the set list, which he changes for every show.
After opening with five songs featuring just his long-time touring band, Joel invited the jazz & fusion keyboardist and founder of Return to Forever, Chick Corea, to the stage for three songs. They played “Big Man on Mulberry Street” followed by “Zanzibar,” which featured solos by trumpet player Carl Fischer as well as Chick laying his synthesizer runs over Joel’s on the grand piano. They finished up with “New York State of Mind,” which featured long-time saxophone player Mark Rivera and Corea on solos.
Rock n roll has faded in recent years from the mainstream. Touring bands now, with rare exception, play theaters and clubs instead of arenas, and when the younger bands that are riding a current wave do play these large rooms, they generally lack the ability to make them completely full and alive. But Billy Joel comes from another generation. He is one of a group of “classic rock” artists, as they are now known, who, starting in the early ’70s, were able to produce a body of work that, as singer-songwriters, defined the lives of the American “everyman” for at least two decades. This put Joel in the company of another local hero, Bruce Springsteen, and the man with the Silver Bullet Band out of Detroit, Bob Seger. When these men play an arena, they make it feel small and intimate, just as they did nearly four decades ago. Even in the “new” Garden, when he sings a song like “Movin’ Out,” as the fans sing along, drinking their beers and eating hotdogs, you really feel the timelessness of his music.
After so many shows (Joel said this was the 23rd or 24th of this latest almost monthly run of performances at MSG), one would think it might be hard to keep it all fresh, but by continually digging into his large catalog, bringing up guests (the show featured his soundman’s daughter on flute for “Always a Woman”) and sprinkling in covers (rhythm guitar player, Mike DelGuidice, sung the first verse of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as an intro to “Sleeping with the Television On,” and “You May Be Right” became a jam of Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Billy also sandwiched The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” in the middle of “River of Dreams.”).
By the time he hit the 18th song of the night, his epic “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the older audience members were all on their feet and singing. People go to see live music to get lost in the moment, with songs that remind them of particular times in their life. There is nothing like “waving goodbye to Brenda and Eddie” with more than 20,000 people. And whether that takes you back to listening to your old man’s 8-track in New Jersey, growing up in Cold Spring Harbor, or a Summer in Highland Falls, it’s hard to leave The Garden complaining after a six-song encore and several hours spent singing along with Billy the Kid.
– Marc Millman
Photos by Marc Millman