For just shy of two hours yesterday afternoon, Billy Joel held tens of thousands of visitors to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the palm of his hand. It was Joel’s second full-length show in the past three years, and as of today, no more shows have been announced. He went to New Orleans fresh from Sydney, Australia, where he played a full set at the Stone Music Festival. He also recently did a prized five-song set at the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy benefit show, and NOLA.com reported that Joel played some songs at Carousel Bar in New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone on Wednesday night.
Joel and his band prepared a similar array of Joel's huge collection of hits for Sydney and New Orleans, and yesterday the 63-year-old singer-songwriter mixed in some hand-picked tunes specific to the venue at hand. "This is Jazz Fest," he told NOLA.com earlier this week. "We'll acknowledge that we know where we are. We're in New Orleans. This is where all this stuff started."
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The New York artist also added some personal touches: Before launching into his second song, "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)," Joel told the crowd, "we know how you felt" since last year’s Hurricane Sandy, referring to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005. "We’re trying to rebuild. We’re taking inspiration from you guys." From that song on, even though opener "Movin' Out" started off strong, the crowd was totally captivated by Joel and his energetic band.
Joel played during an extended downpour at Jazz Fest in 2008. "Last time I was here, we had the flood," he said. Scenes from that day played on the two huge sidestage TV screens as he introduced the next song with the first of several humble and almost self-deprecating statements. "We’re going to take a chance where we might screw up big time. We’re going to play some ragtime. Wish me luck, fellas." But they didn’t screw up "Root Beer Rag" at all: The fast tune highlighted Joel’s piano chops, a testament that he’s still got it. The crowd loved it. Afterward, he stood up from his piano and blew off invisible smoke from his hands: He was having fun.
They played a cover of Johnny Horton’s country song "Battle of New Orleans" as another ode to the city, but it was mostly lost on the crowd. Joel dedicated "The Downeaster Alexa" to Boston, taking his first opportunity performing stateside to recognize the tragedy of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. During the next track, "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," New Orleans heroes the Preservation Hall Jazz Band came out briefly to contribute some brass on the track, to the delight of the crowd.
After a string of hits ("We Didn’t Start the Fire," "It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me," "Only the Good Die Young," and "You May Be Right"), Joel and his band came back on for an encore with "The River of Dreams." Midway through, they segued into the classic New Orleans song "Iko, Iko," a perfect, lasting nod to Jazz Fest. They finished with (what else?) "Piano Man."
Joel spoke with Rolling Stone earlier in the month about the two festival shows. "I'm putting my toe back into the water to see how performing feels," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm going to walk away right after if I don't like how they go, but if I do like how they go, I'll probably end up booking some more gigs." Joel was visibly tired about an hour and a half into the set, but it only put his hard work on display. From getting red in the face belting "New York State of Mind" early on to twirling and tossing the mic stand during "It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me," pure joy coursed through the 20-song set. His band, especially, was totally fired up throughout. Fans should rest assured, from any viewpoint at yesterday’s performance – crowd, band, or Joel himself – it’s hard to imagine he didn’t like the way things went.
You can watch coverage of Joel’s live set from Jazz Fest, as well as the sets from other headliners including Phoenix, Daryl Hall and John Oates, John Mayer, Willie Nelson & Family and more on AXS.TV starting next weekend, May 3rd through May 5th.