News and Tribune

Lifestyles

April 8, 2014

PIANO MAN: Billy Joel displays the keys to success

Veteran performer still has it at age 64

LOUISVILLE — When Billy Joel wrote the song “Miami 2017,” how far away that date must have seemed in 1976.

Yes, the “Piano Man” is nearing retirement age at 64, but Sunday night at the KFC Yum! Center, he showed Louisville that the end of his Hall of Fame career surely isn’t imminent.

“Hello, I’m Billy Joel’s dad,” the balding singer-songwriter introduced himself after opening with “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and his 1980s hit “Pressure.”

One of the great performers of a generation — or of any generations — Joel rocked Louisville with a 27-song set that satisfied the most passionate Joel fan.

He may not have quite the same energy as when he career began in 1964 or when his first solo album “Cold Spring Harbor” was released in 1971, but he more than makes up for it with style, personality, and of course, his genius on his baby grand.

Like any musician, Joel’s show in Louisville was similar to the others on his tour. However, at times he did tailor his show to the city. Horn genius Mark Rivera introduced himself to the nearly full-capacity crowd with his trumpeting of “The Call to the Post” before Joel played a brief rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” on his piano. Joel later played “Wait ’til the Midnight Hour” in recognition of Wilson Pickett, who is buried in Louisville.

He praised the Yum! Center and recalled his days playing at Freedom Hall.

“The fans there were great,” he acknowledged, “but the venue was [crap].”

After playing the aptly-titled “The Entertainer,” Joel needed a shot of his throat spray and explained that it was “The Entertainer’s Secret.” However, he quipped, “I saw Madonna do this once. It didn’t seem to help her.”

“The Entertainer” was followed by the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” and his own Western piece, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid.” In his continuing monologue, he admitted that the lyrics, penned in 1973 when Joel was 24, “are complete [bull] from start to finish. When you’re from New York, West Virginia seems like the West.”

For his next song, Joel offered the crowd a multiple choice.

“I can’t sing them all, you know,” he explained. Through cheers, the crowd chose “Vienna” from Joel’s brilliant 1976 album, “The Stranger.”

Perhaps the only complaint that could be made about the show was a five-song stretch of his playlist.

Songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Tell Her About It,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “Honesty,” “She’s Got a Way” and “Just the Way You Are” were ignored for obscure tunes like “Zanzibar,” “And So It Goes” and “Blonde Over Blue.”

While the avid Joel fan may be familiar with the more ambiguous tunes, novice listeners may have been dispassionate. In fact, before “Blonde over Blue” — from his 1993 “River of Dreams” album — Joel announced to the crowd, “This may be a good time to take a bathroom break.”

When you have 29 top-40 hits, as Joel does, there’s no shame in playing songs that the everyone who paid the pricey admission will enjoy.

Much of the audience sat during the five-song stretch of Joel’s hidden gems, but it rose again for the final 13 songs and didn’t return to its seats the remainder of the evening.

After hits “Allentown” and “New York State of Mind,” Joel played his scintillating “Root Beer Rag.” The crowd seemed mesmerized as the eight big screen panels showed Joel’s fingers working the piano keys. Joel stopped his band in the middle of his lyricless piece, admitting that he’d lost his place. He continued to display his sense of humor and endear himself to his audience by admitting, “That was an authentic rock and roll [screw] up.”

Following his 1977 top-10 hit “Always a Woman,” Joel departed from his own hits, introducing his roadie, Chainsaw, who rocked the crowd with his version of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” while Joel showed off his musical diversity by playing the guitar.

The original set began to reach its crescendo with the Latin-styled, percussion-laden, “Don’t Ask Me Why” from the 1979 album, “Glass Houses.” That was followed by Joel’s most spiritual refrain, “River of Dreams.” The band interrupted itself in the middle of the 1993 hit — from the album of the same name — with a verse of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The night’s biggest ovation came for the initial set’s penultimate offering, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — Joel’s longest song at nearly eight minutes and arguably his most beloved by passionate Joel fans.

As he always does, Joel closed the original set with his most recognizable tune, “Piano Man,” twice teasing the crowd by stroking the song’s correct keys on his piano then playing a different tune with his harmonic. It was his “April Fools’ hangover.”

After a 90-minute performance, the crowd encouraged Joel and his nine-piece band to return for an encore. Of course, they obliged after a short intermission -- the show’s only disruption.

After ignoring arguably his most popular era from 1979 to 1983 for much of the night, he closed with five of his greatest hits. The 20,000 or so in attendance danced and sang along with “Uptown Girl,” “Big Shot,” “Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right.”

The final song of the night, “Only the Good Die Young” has become a contradiction in the life of Billy Joel. At 64, he’s still quite good and, as he proved to his fans in Louisville, his career appears far from dead.

— Greg Mengelt is the sports editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him at greg.mengelt@newsandtribune.com

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