Billy Joel always pauses for a few beats after playing the opening harmonica part of “Piano Man,” but near the end of his 70th birthday show at Madison Square Garden, he really stretched the moment out as a huge grin came across his face. And he certainly had a lot to smile about. Not only did everyone from Paul McCartney to Don Henley, Garth Brooks, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Pink send him surprise birthday video messages throughout the course of the show, but Joel’s eldest daughter, Alexa, and his three year-old, Della Rose, came out to lead the capacity crowd in a sing-along rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“Well, 71 is going to be a letdown,” he said midway through the night, overwhelmed at all the love in the room. “Jeez.”
A little under a decade ago, it would have been very hard to imagine Joel commemorating his 70th birthday with a blowout two-and-a-half-hour show at Madison Square Garden, or anywhere, for that matter. In early 2010, he quietly stepped away from public life after wrapping up a brief co-headlining tour with Elton John. He underwent hip replacement surgery, told his band that he didn’t plan on playing ever again and devoted his time to his motorcycle collection and his family. But a killer set at the 12/12/12 Superstorm Sandy benefit show at the Garden, where he managed to upstage the likes of Roger Waters, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Who and even Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gave him renewed confidence, and the next year Joel dipped his toe back into live performing. That led to an unprecedented monthly residency at Madison Square Garden that began in January 2014 and has continued to this day.
The 70th birthday set began with “Big Shot” and then rotated all night between other big hits like “My Life” and “The River of Dreams,” album tracks like “Vienna” and “The Entertainer” and extended snippets of cover songs like “Start Me Up,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Satisfaction” and “Runaround Sue.” After five years of monthly shows at MSG, many in the audience can tell what song is coming before Joel even plays a note. A factory whistle means “Allentown” is about to begin, the sound of broken glass means “You May Be Right,” saxophonist Mark Rivera moving to a stool near the piano means “New York State of Mind” and backup singer/guitarist Mike DelGuidice belting out Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” means it’s time to stand up and get ready for “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.”
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But there’s always plenty of room for surprises, like when an extra mic stand was brought out to the center of the stage and Joel said that a “contemporary of mine” was going to come out. With that, Peter Frampton ran onto the stage to lead the band through “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Between the two songs, Frampton said he first met Joel 42 years ago when he gave him a ride in his limo through New York. “We were talking and he said to me, ‘What’s the thing you do with the tube?'” Frampton said. “I said, ‘That’s a talk box?’ He said, ‘Can I put a piano through it?’ I said, ‘You can put anything through it!'” With that, he handed Joel a talk box of his own as a birthday gift.
Earlier in the night, Joel’s daughter Alexa duetted with him on “New York State of Mind” before his much younger daughter Della Rose came out with a mic in hand to sing “Happy Birthday.” Quite understandably, she seemed a little overwhelmed by the sight of 20,000 people in the crowd, and her big sister had to handle most of it herself. Joel beamed with pride the entire time, and he somehow seemed even happier when he was told that “another call from England” was coming in.
“Hey Billy!” Paul McCartney said via video while strumming a guitar. “You’re actually just a very young person. Have a great evening. I know the crowd is going to show you a great time and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you. And we love you.” (He then sang a quick rendition of “Happy Birthday” — even though he’s the only person on the planet with another birthday song that’s just as memorable.)
The evening wrapped up with “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right,” which brought Peter Frampton back on guitar. Joel seemed a little winded by this point, but that didn’t stop him from doing his signature mic-stand theatrics during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” throwing the stand across the stage to a crew member at the end.
Joel has shows at the Garden booked through November, and he recently told Rolling Stone he has no plans to jump on the farewell tour bandwagon. That could easily mean that five years down the road, he’ll be onstage celebrating his 75th birthday with another MSG show. Nobody would have seen that coming when he hit 65, but now it’s hard to imagine it happening any other way.