Billy Joel Delivers Marathon Concert at Progressive Field

click to enlarge Billy Joel Delivers Marathon Concert at Progressive Field
Scott Sandberg
A Billy Joel concert is a marathon, not a sprint. The pianist demonstrated that last night at a sold-out, two-and-a-half-hour Progressive Field show that had a few minor pacing lulls but otherwise was a thoroughly entertaining display of musical aptitude and nostalgic revelry.

It helps that the setlist found Joel playing everyone's first favorite Billy Joel song, no matter what era someone became a fan. The night started off with a one-two punch that showed off his love of classic pop construction (52nd Street's don't-mess-with-me-bro classic "My Life") and penchant for musical boundary pushing (a synth-heavy, prog-leaning take on The Nylon Curtain's "Pressure"). From there, Joel touched on the rest of his catalog, including crowd-pleasing no-brainers ("Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "Uptown Girl," "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)") and choice deeper cuts.

The piano bar croon "Vienna" made a welcome appearance after the crowd voted with its applause to hear that one instead of "Just The Way You Are." (Good job, Cleveland.) The humid, jazzy "Zanzibar" was also impressive, especially thanks to Carl Fischer's trumpet flourishes. Glass Houses was particularly well-represented by the new wave-tinged power-pop "Sometimes a Fantasy" and Beatles homage "Don't Ask Me Why," both high points. And one of the night's surprise standouts was River of Dreams' "No Man's Land," which was a gritty, loud and snarling electric rock 'n' roll cut. ("Definitely not a hit single," Joel quipped afterward.)

Vocally, Joel was in fine form—at times, as on "New York State of Mind" almost astonishingly so. The secret is that he's learned how to navigate the nooks and crannies of his aging voice better than most artists, and evolved from a classical-informed pop-rocker into a rock-leaning standards crooner. However, his intuitive ear for dynamics was impressive: He added fervent growls on songs such as "The River of Dreams" and "The Entertainer," which added grit, and elevated "Allentown" by taking a more wistful, longing approach. An epic, standout take on "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," meanwhile, swelled with all the requisite drama and romance, and showed that Joel's emotive storytelling gifts remained unparalleled.

Surprisingly, some of Joel's better-known material didn't fare quite so well. The reggae-tinged "Keeping The Faith" felt like a throwaway; "She's Always a Woman," while heartfelt, felt somewhat treacly. With the set-closing "Piano Man," which was noticeably in a lower key, Joel never quite found a steady groove with the rest of the band. And "We Didn't Start the Fire," although admittedly an always-difficult song to sing, never quite lifted off—even though Joel did his best rock frontman pose by strapping on a guitar and singing at a mic during it.

As that song underscored, however, Joel relishes playing the onstage part of an amiable wiseguy. Not only did he have a fly swatter in hand—which he used to kill bugs on and around his piano—but he also frequently cracked jokes about facets of his personal and professional life. Of the album An Innocent Man: "This is where people think I jumped the shark." After finishing "The Longest Time"—whose doo-wop harmonies were especially on point—he deadpanned, "And then we got divorced." (He would repeat that line two more times, a recurring gag that worked so well because it's true.) During another between-song discussion, he quipped, "I know what you're thinking—he's drinking again," and then noted that he realized he looks like his dad. "No, that's just what I look like." In the hands of some musicians, these asides could sound bitter; with Joel, it's all part of his devil-may-care, lovable-crank personality.

His band, meanwhile, strikes a balance of being extremely well-rehearsed and loose enough to handle on-the-fly improvisation. Joel threw in the Ohio state song, "Hang On Sloopy," during "The River of Dreams" and "Ohio" (from the musical Wonderful Town) another time. Joel also revealed they had their first tour jackets for a Cleveland show in the early '70s, and also recalled staying at notorious rock 'n' roll gathering place Swingos (described by Joel as "pretty depraved"), where they met and hung out with Cream's Jack Bruce. That reference served as a kernel of inspiration for improvisation—a tiny morsel of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and, later, a rendition of the extended piano outro of post-Cream band Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" to close "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)."

Those weren't the only nods to his idols. An encore-ending, freewheeling "You May Be Right" morphed into a mighty take on Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." And, after noting that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released 50 years ago, Joel said he wanted to "thank the Beatles"—and did so with a faithful, panoramic and heartfelt cover of "A Day In The Life," where he sounded uncannily like John Lennon (and guitarist Mike DelGuidice also did a decent Paul McCartney during the song's middle section).

Joel applied that same respect and reverence to those around him onstage. Throughout the night, he introduced every musician by their hometowns—and, given that many were from New York or surrounding environs, the gesture brought casual intimacy, as if the group was a local band doing two sets at a bar on Friday night. But the talent on display was world-class: Multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Crystal Taliefero added ferocious percussion, saxophone and vocals, while DelGuidice shone while singing a jaw-dropping version of Italian opera aria "Nessun dorma." And Mark Rivera elevated an already misty-eyed version of "New York State of Mind" with his evocative and emotional saxophone accompaniment.

But in the night's classiest move, Joel stopped after "A Day In The Life" to rattle off Indians legend Larry Doby's impressive career statistics and milestones, including the fact he was the American League's first African-American player. He then called Doby's son, Larry Doby, Jr.—who's been a member of Joel's crew for decades—to the stage for recognition and applause. A snappy, brief version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" followed. "Feels good to be in first place!" Joel added, to the further delight of Indians fans.

That's the secret to Joel's enduring live appeal: He balances any perceived gruffness with unabashed sentimentality and a dash of good humor, and does so in ways that sound genuine. Look no further than the encore, which saw him playfully strutting around with a mic stand during "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me"—and, on occasion, missing a line or two because of his playfulness—and then went back to the piano and launched into the deliciously vitriolic smackdown "Big Shot" right after.

"I don't have anything new to do," Joel shrugged after "The Entertainer," in a reference to the fact he hasn't released a record since 2001. "Same old shit." It's safe to say that nobody in attendance minded.

Openers Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness did a more-than-admirable job warming up the crowd for Joel. The group's upbeat, high-energy 35-minute set was highlighted by the '80s dance-pop jam "So Close," a keening, harmony-heavy "High Dive" and "La La Lie," a tune from McMahon's former band, Jack's Mannequin.

McMahon, a one-time Columbus resident who noted from the stage his first concert ever was a Joel show in Cleveland, was clearly having a blast. At one point, he cajoled the crowd to start a wave—the floor seats did well, stadium sections not so much—and several times left his piano to dance off the stage, to the delight of pockets of fans up front. The whimsical, set-ending "Cecilia and the Satellite" brought the biggest reaction of the night.

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