Back in January when they announced that Billy Joel was playing at the stadium this summer, I thought I might like to go. On one hand, I was like, “Hey, why not?” I mean, who doesn’t like Billy Joel? He’s like the Sara Lee of music.
On the other hand, the tickets were around $150 a pop, plus I’ve seen him twice before. The first time was in 1984 on the Nylon Curtain tour, ($13.50) and in 1994 on the River of Dreams tour ($28.50). So it’s not like I’d be missing out on anything I haven’t seen. In fact, I saw him in his prime. He’s 66 now, so who knows how he’d sound?
When I discussed it later with my brother, he was ambivalent about it as well. His wife wanted to go, but he remained on the fence. So I said, “Tell her if she wants to go, I’ll go with her.”
So that’s how I ended up going to a Billy Joel concert with my sister-in-law.
My brother secured the tickets and a parking pass for us, so last Saturday evening, we were off. We were concerned about the traffic in the area, because there were some other events going, namely Otakon (Asian pop culture convention), which was taking place at the convention center right across from the stadium.
We got to the stadium in good time and were on the property, heading towards our designated lot when a parking attendant waved us in another direction. Next thing we knew, we were back on the street in bumper to bumper traffic. It took us another 25 freakin’ minutes just to get back to where we wanted to go. Talk about “pissed.” Good thing we left early.
Anyway, we got through security and into our seats about 10 minutes before showtime. We were in the lower bowl, 34 rows up, dead center to the stage.
The stage was set up on what would be the far 30-40 yard line.
The opening act started promptly at 8:00. Who was she? I have no idea. She was never introduced, nor thanked later. Even Googling it, I couldn’t find a reference. She sang three Leeann Rimes songs, plus a couple of other covers. We figured that if it really was Leeann Rimes, there would have been a little more press and/or publicity. But she sounded good, whoever she was, and ended her set right at 8:30.
Both the lower bowl and upper deck were packed, so we were hoping that the two seats to my left would stay open. My SIL had a smelly guy sitting beside her and was hoping we could slide down.
I figured the real show would start at 9:00, but at 8:50, Billy Joel fired up the band and ripped into Big Shot.
Is it me, or do you get a little “Wizard of Oz” here?
Unfortunately, as soon as Billy Joel came on, a couple of bro’s came charging up the stairs and into the empty seats. Next thing I know, I had Fat, Drunk and Stupid (henceforth “FDS”) crammed into not only his seat but a couple of inches of mine as well. Just want you want on a hot July night… to be mashed hip to hip and leg to leg with some huge, sweaty, drunk dude.
But onto the show… which was fan-freakin-tastic! Because he wasn’t touring on a new album, all he had to play were his time-worn favorites and occasional chestnuts. I was happy to say I knew every song he played.
On three occasions he gave the audience a choice; he’d name two songs and determine what to play by our applause. It was pretty cool, even though I suspect it was a setup. Each time the crowd went overwhelmingly for the second song.
One of those was “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” after which he said, “So, you guys really know the old shit…”
One of the benefits of seeing such an experienced and confident artist is that you can tell he’s just being himself. Between songs, he’d tell stories or talk about the songs like he was playing piano for a group of friends in someone’s rec room. Just very casual but in complete control of the room.
The third song was “The Entertainer,” which featured the lyrics:
“I am the entertainer and I may have won your hearts
But I know the game, you’ll forget my name
I won’t be here in another year
If I don’t stay on the charts.”
After the song, he said, “I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote that… I haven’t been on the charts in 23 years, but here we all are…”
To me, the show contained three big surprises. First of all, they bought a sign language guy… or rather, a team. Right there, at the base of the lower bowl, there we saw a little platform, lit from below, and a guy doing sign language to all the songs.
It wasn’t just one guy, different people tagged in every couple of songs. My only beef was that during the instrumental parts, they should have played air guitar.
It was clear that Billy Joel was trying to give everyone the chance to experience the show. Even his piano revolved. Well, not constantly, or he might have spun off… but it would rotate 180 degrees every couple of songs, so people on each side of the stage had a chance to see his face.
Second surprise: Billy Joel’s voice was perfect. I swear, if you closed your eyes, you’d swear he was still in his 30s. That was jarring, considering how he now looks like a Russian villain from a James Bond movie.
All night long, he never lost a note or wavered; he just hit them all spot-on. His mid-range was great, and his lower notes sounded even fuller, which makes sense given his current expanded size. But even on “Innocent Man,” which calls for an insanely high note… well, he didn’t attempt that note from the original record. But he went just a tad lower, just short of falsetto, and knocked it out of the park. I was impressed, considering he used to farm that note out to one of his backup singers.
Oh, and the band; they were so versatile. I mean, his songs come in all kinds of styles and they handled them all, from the perfectly harmonized doo-wop of “For the Longest Time” to the crunch of a heavy metal classic.
Which brings me to the 2nd surprise. About two-thirds of the way through the show, he said he wanted to bring up one of his roadies to do a song, and we were perfectly welcome to “boo his ass off the stage.” The guy wanted to do a “religious number,” and it would be up to us whether we liked it or not. With that, he introduced his guitar tech, this big dude named, “Chainsaw,” and the band broke into a rocking cover of “Highway to Hell.”
I’ll tell you, the guy was good. He stalked about the stage and sang the shit out of that song.
About this time, though, we were getting pretty fed up with our “seatmates.” between Smelly Guy spilling his beer on my sister-in-law, FDS standing up and enthusiastically mock-signing with the sign language guy (while smelling like a skunk dipped in beer), and the Woo Girl screaming three feet behind my left ear during every break, we were getting pretty tired of all the local “flavor.”
After the obligatory “Piano Man,” (was there ever a more perfect sing-along song?) and before the encores started, we decided to make a break for it. Being 34 rows back into the bowl, it would have taken us at least 15 minutes just to get to the concourse. By that time, we were out of the venue, back to the car and hitting the freeway on-ramp.
I didn’t like missing more of the show, but I would have liked sitting in the parking lot for the next hour even less, especially after the experience we had getting in there. Instead, we were out the door at 10:50, to my brother’s house by 11:10, and I was home by 11:30. It was beautiful!
Back in my prime concert-going years, I used to carry a pen and pocket notebook with me to shows, to record the set list (and any other noteworthy events). Now in the digital age, I used the Notes app on my phone. So in case you’re interested, here is everything Billy Joel played:
Vienna, by audience choice, vs Zanzibar.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood. Also audience choice, vs (something from the Turnstiles album).
An Innocent Man
NY State of Mind
For the Longest Time, by audience choice vs Keepin’ the Faith
Goodnight Saigon, in which he brought out a dozen Army and Navy vets, to sing along.
Always a Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
Highway to Hell
We Didn't Start the Fire.
River of Dreams
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant (one of my favorites)
Still Rock n Roll to Me (Both of which we heard as we walked out and even while we were in the car.)
Only the Good Die Young (I’m just assuming he played this one… he always does and it usually closes. But I can’t say for a fact he didn’t play anything else too.)
At minimum, it was a solid two-and-a-quarter-hour show and a damned good one, at that.