While it’s nigh impossible to take requests at a sold-out arena concert, Billy Joel served up a clever facsimile Friday night. Early in the set he asked the crowd to choose: Did we want a show of all hits, or one mixed with a healthy dose of album tracks?
I’ll pause and let you guess which the Amalie Arena crowd preferred…
The audience applause clearly tilted toward the mixed show. Joel shrugged and smiled. And then he delivered. (Was the multiple-choice exercise a clever audience-participation gambit? Maybe, but Joel’s past setlists show that his song sequences vary widely.)
Photos of Billy Joel playing guitar (and piano) at Tampa's Amalie Arena
Clad in a black suit and shirt, and narrow black tie with tiny designs, Joel, playing guitar, opened with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” getting one of his most annoying songs out of the way. He proceeded to roam throughout his catalog, playing major hits like “Uptown Girl,” “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right,” all encores, as well as “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “My Life,” “She’s Always a Woman” and others. One of his finest moments was “New York State of Mind,” a standard that, to me, had worn out its welcome. Joel sang the tune with more swagger and jazzier phrasing than the 1976 recording.
“I am the entertainer,” he sang three songs in. That pretty much sums up Billy Joel. He has adapted over the years, from a coiled ball of energy prone to bounding around the bandstand, to a proudly bald senior citizen who mostly stays seated at his center-stage piano (which did 360-degree revolutions to give the crowd varied viewpoints.)
He threw in little tricks and techniques to add zest to a two-hour-plus show that consisted of songs that were nearly all performed identically to their recorded versions. His eight-piece band, heavy with musicians from New York and Jersey, played the arrangements with well-drilled expertise and delivered tightly allotted solos bursting with vigor.
Joel talked frequently between tunes—to set up numbers, tell quick anecdotes, and make self-deprecating comments.
“I’m Billy Joel’s dad,” he quipped, by way of introduction. “Billy couldn’t be here tonight, but I know all his stuff.”
Joel has more than a little sit-down comedian in him—in a smart-ass New Yorker style that comes naturally.
All of these conceits had the effect of making a packed arena show as close to intimate as possible. Billy Joel is still very much the piano man of that famous 1973 song—which he played just before leaving the stage, pre-encores. While Joel has performed “Piano Man” more times that can be tallied, his version on Friday night oozed commitment. He even racked a harmonica arounds his neck, and Lord knows that’s a pain in the keister.
At 70, Joel’s voice shows virtually no signs of degradation. Let’s go ahead and call it remarkable. He went for the high notes, and hit nearly all of them. Before launching into “The Downeaster Alexa,” one of his epic narrative tunes, Joel said, “You write these songs and don’t consider you’ll have to hit the high notes 30 years later.” He reached them, with a little cover from his backup singers.
Adding surprise and balance were such beloved numbers as “Zanzibar” (another story song), “Summer, Highland Falls” (all but a tribute to Jackson Browne), and the multi-movement showstopper “Scenes from Italian Restaurant.” Joel set up that song by handing over lead singing duties to sideman Mike DelGuidice, who blew the crowd away with a version of “Nessun Dorma,” an aria from the Puccini opera “Turandot.” Only a very secure pop star lets a band member upstage him, however briefly.
More little delights: a spot-on version of The Beatles “I Feel Fine.” A detour into ZZ Top’s “Tush” in the middle of “The River of Dreams.” A quick piano version of the Schaefer beer jingle. Four songs in, Joel asked the audience to choose between two ballads from 1977’s The Stranger album: “Just the Way Your Are” or “Vienna.”
Take a second to predict …
You’re correct. “Vienna” was the crowd’s enthusiastic choice. And Joel, clearly pleased, nailed it.
Random observations and musings:
- A woman who appeared to be in her early 20s, occupying the row on the floor directly in front of mine, sang every lyric to every song. She even mouthed the words to “I Feel Fine.” I wondered if she knows who Billie Eilish is.
- The same woman was part of a row of friends, all young women. Three of them appeared to be taking selfie videos of themselves most of the time. Hey, I know this is the geezer in me talking, but they missed a good show. Yes, they were free to engage in this silliness, but did they have to make their Instagrams (I presume) while standing up nonstop, directly in front of me. This fella needs his sit-down time at concerts, which is why I don’t like floor seats in big venues. Not complainin’, just sayin’.
Follow @cl_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news, concert announcements and local tunes. Subscribe to our newsletter, and listen to us on WMNF 88.5-FM’s “Radio Reverb” program every Saturday from 4 p.m.-6 p.m.