Saturday, December 2, 2023

Return of the Piano Man

At one point during Tuesday night’s sold-out show at BB&T Center, Billy Joel pulled back from the keyboard after catching a glimpse of himself on the scoreboard screen. “I keep thinking that’s my father when I look up there,” he said, acknowledging the inevitable. “I never expected that to happen … but it did.”

At 64, the shine can’t help but come off the Steinway a bit. The Piano Man had double hip replacement in 2010, he’s battled depression and the bottle over the past decade, and what was left of his once-thick Long Island locks is history.

So why then was someone who hasn’t released an album of original pop songs since 1993 such a sight for sore eyes? Perhaps absence has made our hearts grow fonder.

Until Tuesday’s performance in Sunrise (he plays the BB&T again this Saturday), Joel had made only three significant concert appearances in the United States since March 2010—including the 12-12-12 benefit for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden during which his searing six-song set stole a show that included the Stones, The Who and a Beatle. Not counting the private concert he played for students at Lynn University a few years ago, Joel hadn’t taken the stage in South Florida since two dates in early 2009 at the Hard Rock.

All that will change this year as he embarks on a series of dates that includes nine shows over eight months at Madison Square Garden. As evidenced by the packed house last night—even the top rows in the upper levels behind the stage were filled—Billy was missed. His self-imposed sabbatical may have had the unintended effect of renewing public appreciation for one of the best-selling solo artists in music history. It’s like the album with worn grooves that you set aside for several years—only to rediscover later all the reasons you couldn’t stop playing it in the first place.

For hardcore Joel fans, Tuesday’s show was a gift in that regard. Instead of mailing in a few hours of greatest hits, Joel, clad in his black suit and shirt, treated the enthusiastic crowd to a night of deep tracks—and he even hinted that Elton John was the reason.

“I was on tour with what’s his name,” said Joel, a nod to the mini war of words he and Sir Elton have been having, “and for 16 years, he never wanted to change a thing [about the set list]. I have to say, I got a little bored.”

Little about this set list was predictable. After opening with “Miami 2017” and “Pressure,” Joel—his voice, deep and commanding throughout the night—reached into the back catalog for songs like the delicate “Where’s the Orchestra?” off “The Nylon Curtain,” and a pulse-pounding version of “Zanzibar” off “52nd Street.” Joel teased the song “Everybody Loves You Now” by telling the crowd he was going to play his favorite cut off his debut album, “Cold Springs Harbor,” released in 1971. When the crowd cheered the album title, Joel quipped, “C’mon folks. Not that many people even bought that record. … I don’t even have a copy.”

After wrapping up the first set with “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and “Piano Man,” Joel and his eight-piece backup group—including sax player Mark Rivera, the only holdover from Billy’s lineup in the 1980s—tore through a four-song encore that had every Baby Boomer in the house on his or her feet. The show, which ended with rollicking versions of “You May Be Right” and the “Only the Good Die Young,” clocked in at just about two hours.

Joel didn’t offer his trademark closing line—“Don’t take any shit from anyone.” Instead he took a selfie with someone’s iPhone, raised his hand to the crowd and walked gingerly across the stage and into the night.

The Piano Man may be a little worse for wear, but it’s great to have him back.


Set List

Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)


The Longest Time

Sleeping With The Television On

Everybody Loves You Now


All for Leyna

Where’s The Orchestra?


New York State of Mind

Blonde Over Blue


The Entertainer

She’s Always a Woman

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)

Don’t Ask Me Why

The River of Dreams

Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

Piano Man


We Didn’t Start the Fire

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me

You May Be Right

Only the Good Die Young


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