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Billy Joel At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, October 2nd, 2014, Reviewed

The Maria Callas Of Rock

The Maria Callas Of Rock

Some rock stars take over the stage by force of personality and some take over the stage through force of familiarity and Billy Joel does through a sense of security that is through the roof. He talks to us, all of us, as though he is talking to one of us, and though Billy amusingly compares being on stage to being a Mussollini till the reality of driving home to Long Island in front of truck whose driver tells him off, hits home, Billy doesn’t act like a big shot really at all.

It isn’t due to a lack of ego, it is due to a comfort level, he takes what he is doing, his gift as an arena rocker (actually, a stadium rocker as well), for granted. This makes him neither good nor bad as a performer, on New Year’s Eve (review here), he spent nearly an hour digging into his catalog for some stunningly bad deep album tracks. “Until The Night” and “A Room Of Our Own” are Joel at his worst, a poor man’s Elton John, an arty autistic artistic word spewer baffled by the hook. The Nylon Curtain, which is where “Room” is entombed, was one long deep album track and on New Year’s Eve at Barclay I had no idea what the man was thinking of. It should have been self-evident NYE was neither the time nor place to play hide and go seek with your songs. The place to do that is a small concert for fans only at the Beacon or something.

The Barclays set also proved  something I have, as a fan mind you, long contended, the new wave kids were right, Joel is a lightweight. More or less. He has his moments, plenty of them, but really how does “She’s Always A Woman” compare to “Love Minus Zero: No Limit”? Light even on  Thursday night at a sold out Madison Garden, the tenth show in what doesn’t appear to be going on no further than twelve nights –which, by the way , was the residency he played back in 2006. I went four times in 2006, so I guess when I say I am a fan who considers him a lightweight what I mean is he can bring it but he can’t maintain it and any way, at the age of 65 he really is very comfortable on stage but he is also a little stuck on stage.

So ten months after being thoroughly bored at Barclay Center I went back for more and it was a great set. It wasn’t a deep set, you wouldn’t remember it forever, it was an easy going set, fan friendly, indeed friend friendly and no you don’t expect him to be jumping on the piano like the fine opener, 35 year old English guy Jamie Cullum. Jamie looks like Pete Doherty if Doherty hadn’t ruined his looks on drugs, and Billy mentioned Jamie’s jazz chops, though Jamie is growing into becoming a singer songwriter piano guy, a Junior Varsity Joel. I was in no mood to wait an hour to see Billy, I ended up leaving before the encore, but Jamie was good.

And so was Joel. It was a proforma show, completely at ease in concert # 10, Billy teased Madonna and Elton, threw in a snippet of “Your Song” (“…I don’t have much money, bullshit because I’m rich”) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Fool In The Rain”, the Bernstein and Sondheim “America”, and “”La Marseillaise” –when he does that, it is like he is thinking aloud and we are listening in on him.

There were not many problems with the set but what there were were simple enough to understand. “Allentown” is a terrible song –Billy is to deep thought what Jay Z is to humility. “Scenes from An Italian Restaurant” and “Piano Man” are much much worse. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber style classicism: in the 80s we sneered at it, in the 10s we considered it high culture. Remember when Billy composed an album of classical music for piano? 2001’s Fantasies And Delusions? He got a fairly hard kicking over it but I prefer it to “Scenes” and “Piano Man” any day. At least it has the power of its convictions and also, the melodies, his greatest gift by far, didn’t desert him as he played classical. No he wasn’t Gershwin but he didn’t embarrass himself.

It really is all about the tunes with Billy. Two of his greatest, “The Longest Time” and “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” are never really performed, but we still get a handful of great ones tonight: “Don’t Ask Me Why”, “River Of Dreams”, and of course his excellent anthem “New York State Of Mind” –not “Manhattan” true, but surely the best after that. It was given a thorough, show stopping performance the equal of Jay Z’s excellent take on the lame “Empire State Of Mind” at the “Global Citizen” gig last Saturday, though with better horns. The difference is “NYSOM” is a much, much better song.

Throughout the two hours plus concert, Billy had an effortless sense of control, it is well beyond arrogance, well beyond Jay Z’s self serving chuffedness and something like you’d see with Sinatra or Bennett when Bennett is in the mood. I once had a good friend who was unbelievably gifted with the ladies. Women simply adored him, and from time to time, after I’d been given my walking papers toot sweet by some girl, I’d watch him picking up her friend and there was nothing showy about it, it was all an easy smile, a real interest in her, a sense of humor: he was so comfortable in his own skin, women wanted to be a part of it. They wanted him, they weren’t used to somebody who had no reason to sell themselves. Look, there are film stars, rock stars, etc, the Magic Johnsons of the world, who could get any girl they want, but that isn’t skill it’s social climbing, they don’t have what he had: a genuine assuredness, confidence without the insecurity of arrogance. This is what Billy Joel projects now. It wasn’t always that way, Joel used to exude pugnaciousness, as though he felt being a piano man wasn’t macho enough for a former boxer. Remember the extremely self-defensive “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”?

This defensiveness was behind all those lugubrious albums, the awful thoughtful shopping list of 20th Century name droppings that was “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, the embarrassing Vietnam vet via Apocalypse Now “Goodnight Saigon” , and the working class nonsense of “Allentown”. The bad songs propped up bad albums saved by great hits over and over again forever until Joel did something remarkable, he stopped writing completely, or at least recording songs, he turned his back on it and with the exception of the classical composition, his last album of new songs was over twenty years ago. Instead, he second guessed the entire post-internet world and simply stopped recording. Take that Spotify.

So what you get , and when I didn’t get it I slammed him hard on NYE, is a greatest hits parade by a seasoned pro, a master act of seduction. Opening with “Miami 2017” (coming up folks, three more years) and continuing with “Pressure” and an obscurity, he had the audience exactly where he wanted them. The completely sold out MSG, even behind the stage, cheered Joel as he sat at his rotating piano, with gorgeous LCD screens, and a sparkling deep blue lightning which exploded into glaring white light, and rode that piano like it was his bitch and his lover. The only person I’ve seen capable of that sort of ssurance is Oscar Peterson, Little Richard was much more an Elton John commanding force of nature, Jerry Lee Lewis too moody.

With a cracker bunch of local session men behind Billy (except for the drummer who is Australian), some good back up singers for a Beatley moment here and there, Joel lead the band and the audience wherever he wanted to take it. Given options twice however, we went for “Sometimes A Fantasy” and the apt given George Clooney’s recent nuptials “Vienna” . Those two gems set the tone for the evening: a jukebox worth of mostly 80s hit songs and a lot of people, 20,000 strong, singing along.

If it is nostalgia, it is big shot big time nostalgia, it is nostalgia the way McCartney is nostalgia, but it is more like a masterclass: I think it must be like watching Maria Callas or Louis Armstrong. Who wants to give Armstrong a hard time for playing “Sleepy Time Down South”? To what end? In 2014, do you think if you saw Armstrong in 1965 performing “Hello Dolly” and “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” you’re gonna complain? Do you think it would be a nostalgia trip? Nonsense.  It is the same with Joel: if you are a lover of pop music there is no gainsaying Joel, he is superbly competent, a major performer. Completely unlike Elton John, who pounds you into submission, or Springsteen, who just won’t stop, Joel is happy to hang with you, do what he does in the firm knowledge you are going to enjoy it and for a couple of hours he is going to be not Mussolini but a King Henry V type figure. He simply rules.

Grade: A-

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