By Paul Robicheau
Billy Joel remains in fine voice and his versatile bandmates provided his songs with grace and fire power that fleshed out his casual but punchy onstage prowess.
Billy Joel blames the fans. “Who would have told me I’d be doing this job at 70 years old,” the piano man told his annual full house of the faithful while closing Fenway Park’s 2019 concert season on Saturday. “And you’re still coming to see me, so it’s your fault. I can’t retire — until you stop buying these fucking tickets!”
There’s a good reason why people don’t stop, however, when Joel and his crack eight-piece band keep rocking seamless shows like his sixth consecutive one-night stand at Boston’s ballpark. A banner unfurled on the Green Monster declared the Long Island legend to be the first performer in the Fenway Music Hall of Fame.
Joel — who hasn’t released an album since 1993 — boasted that he didn’t have anything new, just the “same old shit,” and poked fun at other bands that play new songs only to send fans to the bathroom. But if his selection of songs hasn’t changed much from year to year, Joel changed up the order across a two-hour-plus set and injected a few rarities.
He balanced the cinematic crescendos and saloon piano spools of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” after imitating a clomping horse with his mouth clicks in a winsome intro, then joked that would be the difficult song that he’d mess up to force his retirement. He served up the jazzy showpiece “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and went most far afield with the minor 1980 glide “Sleeping with the Television On,” which rode catch-phrase band harmonies of “All night long” and “Talk to me.”
Joel remains in fine voice and his versatile bandmates provided his songs with grace and fire power that fleshed out his casual but punchy onstage prowess. Saxophonist Mark Rivera topped “New York State of Mind” with elegant tenor and was joined by usual trumpeter Carl Fischer and percussion dynamo Crystal Taliefero in a melodious three-way sax section during “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” the song whose “Heart attack, ack, ack, ack, ack, ack” hook birthed a moniker for a local Joel tribute band. Mike Delguidice and Tommy Byrne’s beefy twin guitars fueled tunes like “Big Shot.” And Delguidice wowed with his traditional opera vocal on “Nessun Dorma,” a different kind of cover than Saturday takes on Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (not the first time that one’s popped up at Fenway), “A Hard Day’s Night” and “I Feel Fine,” a double shot to satiate Joel’s obvious love for the Beatles.
Joel’s own tunes are sometimes derided as saccharine songcraft, and he did push crowd-pleasing buttons at mid-set with “Don’t Ask Me Why” and “She’s Always a Woman,” but that sells short his broader character studies. He brought the crowd to sea for fisherman’s plight “The Downeaster Alexa” and to the slide of a blue-collar town in “Allentown.” And the set naturally wound down with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” a tour-de-force around the saga of Brenda and Eddie, and the immortal “Piano Man,” about an observant barroom balladeer that he ended by playfully dashing his harmonica to the stage. You couldn’t blame the crowd for enjoying a boisterous sing-along to the line “We’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling all right.”
Joel was chatty as usual, noting songs that were “more bombs than hits” (like it made much difference to his fans today) and playing to the hometown baseball team as a New Yorker who thought Ted Williams was “the greatest hitter I’ve seen in my life.”
And as he played guitar on his rat-a-tat history list “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” twirled a mic stand to “Uptown Girl,” and rocked his piano stool like a bucking bronco on “You May Be Right” (before a searing tag of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll”), it was clear that Joel’s more than ready to keep serenading into his 70s.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.