For most of my life I had little interest in seeing Billy Joel. I knew all his big hit singles and that he was revered as a singer-songwriter and pianist with a long history, almost like America’s answer to Elton John, but had a passing interest at best in his music.
That all changed nearly three years ago when a friend of mine won tickets for his Wembley Stadium show, and I was blown away by the showmanship, the quality of his band and of course those songs. Put this way, in that year’s GRTR! end of year best ofs it was second only to Springsteen and the E Sreet Band as my concert of the year.
He only does occasional shows in the UK, so when another Wembley stadium date was announced, this time I bought tickets in a shot. The man himself introduced both shows identically, saying ‘I haven’t got any new stuff for you – just the same old shit’.
Two things though had changed – rather than a chilly autumn night it was a hot summer one on the longest day of the year; and while last time he regularly offered the crowd a ‘fielder’s choice’ between two songs – usually an obscure album cut and a better known one - he stuck to a pre-determined set on this occasion.
In a low key opening, it was also a surprise to see his bald, besuited figure come on stage playing guitar, to the heartland rock sounding and rather too quiet ‘A Matter Of Trust’, though normal service was soon resumed as he took to piano to deliver, surprisingly early, one of his best known songs ‘My Life’ in trademark fashion. But the dominant keyboard sound on ‘The Entertainer’ was the almost Styx-like synthesisers from David Rosenthal, one of two former Rainbow members in the line up, along with Chuck Burgi on the drums.
Billy’s voice has weathered pretty well over his 70 years, while his between song intros showed some typically mordant New York wit, though he also told tales of the influences of his ancestors this side of the pond and played the odd snatch of tradional English songs.
Favourites like ‘Vienna’ and ‘Only The Good Die Young’ and much-loved hits – ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘She’s Always A Woman’, which had people waving their arms and trying to pick themselves out on the big screen as the camera panned the crowd, were interspersed with those two story songs of American working life, ‘Allentown’ and ‘The Downeaster Alexa’. The nearest to an obscurity, at least to my ears, was ‘The Ballad Of Billy The Kid’, the band effectively creating some very western-like sound effects.
Songs such as ‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’ and ‘Moving Out’, which really grew on me as it progressed, were greatly enhanced by a trio of sax players, with more rock connections as they included former Foreigner sideman Mark Rivera and Crystal Taliefero, for a long time in John Mellencamp’s band.
Whether ‘New York State Of Mind’, featuring a haunting sax solo, whose sense of swing could almost have come from the ‘Rat Pack’ era, or ‘River Of Dreams’ with its doo wops- here interspersed with a cover of ‘I Feel Fine’ – many of the master’s songs stray far from this website’s usual musical territory.
Yet he and his band do rock out as required from time to time, as they did here mid-set in ‘I Go To Extremes’ and ‘Sometimes A Fantasy’ which had an almost Cars-like new wave feel.
After an unexpected diversion of Billy accompanying band member Mike DelGuidice as he sang ‘Nessun Dorma’, we moved into the home straight with fan favourite ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’, almost a Sondheim-esque mini-musical in itself, before as light belatedly fell everyone’s phones lit up as they sang and swayed to ‘Piano Man’ though it was disappointing that the sound of the actual vocals coming from the originator on stage sounded so muted.
For the first encore Billy came back on stage wielding a guitar for the one song in his repertoire that is probably most suited to the stadium rock experience – with a backdrop of flames and photos of all those post-war world events so craftily namechecked in it, I was up rocking out and singing along to ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’.
We were now in super hit territory as scarcely a person was not on their feet dancing and singing to ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘Its Still Rock’ n’ Roll To Me’, before Billy returned to piano, leading the band through some almost E Street Band-like, brassy rock’n’roll ensemble playing during ‘Big Shot’ and set closer ‘You May Be Right’, even with a snatch of Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ with Mike singing.
The quality of the songs meant that in a set just tipping 2 hours he could afford to omit ‘Just The Way You Are’, ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘An Innocent Man’ with few complaints. Yet I hadn’t enjoyed it quite so much as the 2016 show, partly as nothing can ever be as good as the first time, but also the way this show which took place almost wholly in daylight emphasised he is not the most natural stadium act.
It would have been lovely, if unrealistic, for him to repeat his famous Madison Square Garden residency, say at the Arena down the road or even Hammersmith Odeon (as it shall always be called). Nevertheless that was a small reservation about a highly enjoyable evening watching one of America’s greatest stars of the rock era, backed by a class band, cantering through his legacy.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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