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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Concert Review: Songs from a Hockey Arena

Billy Joel rocks Madison Square Garden...again.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Big Shot: Billy Joel at the piano for your dining and dancing pleasure.
Photo © 2017 LiveNation.
OK. Maybe you're waking up, opening my blog page or getting your daily e-mail and going...."Alright. That Pelkonen kid has lost it again. First that Dream Theater review. Then those guys with the three drummers...and now...Billy Joel? The piano man?" Well yes. I saw Mr. Joel's show last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden and enjoyed it thoroughly, and decided to write about it. So settle down, Beavis, pour yourself a glass from a bottle of red or a bottle of white, and let me do my thing.

I've always had mixed feelings about William Martin Joel, the songwriter, piano player, and yes, rock star who started in the Bronx and became the musical voice of Long Island, the three counties east of Brooklyn and Queens. I went to college with a lot of Billy Joel fans, who were listening to "We Didn't Start the Fire" as I was drowning them out with Judas Priest, U2 and Yes. He seemed "mostly harmless", and I do confess that I owned and wore out a copy of Turnstiles (on cassette) in those hazy Fordham years.

It's not "cool" to like Billy. It's "classic rock." "'Dad'-rock." I mean, he wrote a frickin' Broadway "jukebox" musical (Movin' Out) for chrissakes. He's responsible for tunes like "Uptown Girl," "Just the Way You Are," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me", "Only the Good Die Young" and "She's Always a Woman." And now I've got at least one of those songs humming in your head, don't I? Along with more complex art songs like "Allentown" and "The Downeaster Alexa", they form part of the American songbook. Stylistically, Billy Joel blends '50s style doo-wop, classical art song, and pure Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano virtuosity, a heady brew that for the past four decades, remains as satisfying as a cold beer on a hot day.

The concert on Saturday night was the 46th of Mr. Joel's current "residency" at Madison Square Garden, the hockey arena plopped atop Penn Station in New York. And it proved to be a thrilling and (not counting the ticket prices) rich experience. Sitting at the piano and fronting a big band, Mr. Joel proved himself not just the award winning entertainer but the heir to bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey and maybe even Duke Ellington, talking to the crowd, doing spur-of-the-moment cover fragments ("Stayin' Alive" and "Billie Jean" complete with a short moonwalk) and taking polls on what song to play next. Some were a little biased (everyone wants to hear "The Entertainer" instead of "Root Beer Rag") but it was a fun mechanism to move the show forward.

Whatever his flaws and pretensions, Mr. Joel is an ambassador of song. It is to his credit that the sprawling two hour and 45 minute show (counting encores) moved along at a steady, even relentless pace. He started with "Miami 2017 (I've Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)", written in 1979 as an apocalyptic lark but given grim resonance to New Yorkers, thanks to the events of 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy. This was swiftly followed by the grim "Pressure" from the even grimmer album The Nylon Curtain, a song that ratchets tension in the listener as effectively as the Alban Berg opera Wozzeck.

There were some unusual turns and twists along the long road leading to the biggest hits ("We Didn't Start the Fire" and "Piano Man"). Jon Stewart came onstage as an unexpected special guest. Billy brought out his roadie Chainsaw (that's the man's professional name) to belt "Highway to Hell" as a tribute to AC/DC guitarist Malcom Young. Guitarist Mike DelGuidice sang Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot in a sweet clear tenor, with Billy the piano. It was a controlled and beautiful performance and the introduction to "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant", itself a three-part operatic art song that owes something to Hugo Wolf and something to Chuck Berry.

He was backed by a large band which swung with the precision of a ball-peen hammer. Crystal Talifierro supplied acrobatic percussion and soulful backing vocals. Mark Rivera was a welcome presence and foil on saxophone, fattening the sound and doing the big solos in "Scenes" with audacity and full, round tones. Jazz drummer Chuck Burgi held down the beat and to his right Dave Rosenthal provided keyboard support and musical direction. But the focus of the night was always on Mr. Joel himself. Playing on a stage set with no back line, his piano rotating so he could see the crowd, the kid from Oyster Bay, Long Island delivered another hard rocking triumph. And yes we like him, just the way he is.

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