Billy Joel is returning to the road this month to play a few festival gigs after a three-year absence. "I'm putting my toe back into the water to see how performing feels," he tells Rolling Stone. "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. I don't know if I'll go an extended tour like Bruce Springsteen, hammering away for two years, though."
The 63-year-old singer-songwriter is already giving a lot of thought to the kind of show he'd like to present later this year. "I'd like to do more songs that weren't hits. I got tired of doing the greatest hits set. It was boring playing the same songs over and over. There are a lot of songs the longtime fans want to hear," he says. "If I was going to play again in places like New York, I would probably feature entire albums. It would give me a chance to do songs we haven't played. . . We'd do one album and then play some obscurities. I enjoy playing those more than I enjoy playing the hits. . . I'm thinking we'd do these shows in Philly, New York, Washington D.C., Detroit and Chicago."
The plans are still very much in flux, though he's giving a lot of thought to exactly which older songs he hopes to resurrect. "I'd love to do 'Surprises' or 'She's Right on Time' or 'Laura,'" he says. "I would also love to do 'Sleeping With the Television On.' On the other hand, I remember going to see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden and they didn't do one hit. They didn't do 'Whole Lotta Love.' They played all blues jams and I walked away very disappointed. I was like, 'I don't know any of this shit!"
Joel has a precedent for these sorts of obscurities shows: he challenged his audience at the opening night of his 2006 tour in Sunrise, Florida when he opened with 'Piano Man' (his traditional closer) and then played a long set of rarities like "Zanzibar," "Great Wall of China," "All for Leyna" and "Where's the Orchestra." He quickly reverted back to the hits a few nights later. "We thought it was great," he says. "But the audience was like, 'I don't know this stuff!' There has to be a balance between stuff people are familiar with and stuff they don't know."
There hasn't been a new Billy Joel pop album since 1993's River of Dreams, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. "I don't have any new material," he says. "But I realized that if I play older material that has never been heard before, like an album track or an obscure song, that's almost the same as doing a new song. I just don't want to be an oldies hack where I'm just playing songs everybody is familiar with."
Whatever happens, Joel is quite sure his marathon tours are long behind him. "I have to make up my mind about what I'm capable of doing," he says. "When I sing, I'm singing really high. I've lowered the keys, but a lot of those things are really high. I need a few days to recover from every gig. But it would be silly to do just one gig every three months. You tie up the band and the crew. . . It would have to be more work than that."
Although he never made a public announcement, Joel quietly retreated from the spotlight after wrapping up a co-headlining tour with Elton John in March 2010. Later that year, he had hip replacement surgery, and during the long and painful recovery process, he did contemplate retirement. "In a way, everything after Shea Stadium [in 2008] was anti-climactic," he says. "That was a major gig, an epiphany. I was like, 'Oh my god, where do you go from here?' I mean, I played Yankee Stadium. Giants Stadium, Shea. . . What's the next thing? You hire an airplane, fly over the States and charge everybody a dollar? Rent the state of Kansas? It has to be re-thought and re-worked."
Much of Billy Joel's time these past few years has been devoted to his family and his motorcycle shop in Oyster Bay, Long Island. "I was really kind of sick of celebrity," he says. "I know I'm not going to get a lot of sympathy from people for saying that, but there are so many nasty things about celebrity. It's a whole industry onto itself now, and I was kind of horrified by it, though I do enjoy being able to get a table in a restaurant. That part's great. It's also nice when people come up and recognize me and say nice things about my work. But a lot of the other stuff is a pain in the ass. I told the people in my organization I was really sick of celebrity and I wanted to keep a low profile."
Once a few years ticked by and Joel recovered from the hip surgery, playing shows started to seem more appealing. His five-song set at the 12/12/12 Sandy benefit show at Madison Square Garden was hailed as the highlight of the evening, and fans were stunned by the strength of his voice. "That's because I had three years off!" he says. "I also didn't think it was that good. We only did five measly songs, and it wasn't really our audience or production. Madison Square Garden is my house! We've done much better shows there. Hello! Everybody seems to forget that."
Still, he was quite pleased by the huge response. He played a private show earlier this year, and later this month, he is flying to Australia to headline the Stone Music Festival. "I had success in Australia before I was successful in America," he said. "I though I should go back there because it's been a really long time. It's going to be an outdoor stadium in front of about 50,000 people."
Six days later, he's returning to Jazz Fest in New Orleans. "The last time we played there [in 2008], it was a deluge," he says. "People were drowning in the audience, water was up to their waists. It was just a mess. I'm hoping it stays dry for us this time."
Future shows with Elton John are also not out of the question, even though John vented some frustration with Joel in the pages of Rolling Stone in 2011. "It's absolutely possible I'd play with Elton again," says Joel. "Sometimes he runs off at the mouth. But. . . I haven't even heard from him since [he gave that interview]. I guess that 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.'" He gives a huge laugh at that. "But I would always work with him again. I still love the guy. He's a great guy."
Joel has no plans to retire soon, as he is eager to stress to Rolling Stone. "I did an interview, I think with an Australian newspaper," he says. "I said I'd consider retiring if I didn't think I could do it well anymore. I never said I intended to retire. I never said, 'I'm gonna hang it up.' I was just kind of wondering, 'Gee, I wonder what happens when a musician gets to a point where he realizes he's not as good as he used to be?' That turned into 'Billy Joel May Retire After His Next Gigs.' I just want to put those rumors to rest because people keep asking me if I'm going to retire. . . I just love the game too much to not play it well."