There are a lot of things that Billy Joel couldn’t possibly have imagined when he first played Madison Square Garden on December 14th, 1978. He couldn’t have imagined that 40 years later he’d sit on the same stage with his three-year-old daughter in his lap while the venue hoisted a banner into the rafters commemorating his 100th show at the arena. He couldn’t have imagined he’d be popular enough at age 69 to pack the place every single month for years on end despite effectively retiring as a recording artist a quarter of a century earlier. Finally, he couldn’t have imagined that his buddy Bruce Springsteen would take time from his own New York residency (albeit at a place 1/20th of the size) to help him celebrate the stunning achievement.
Many fans expected Joel to celebrate his 100th MSG show with some sort of surprise, but nobody had any clue Springsteen was coming out until about two thirds of the way through the show when Joel addressed the crowd after a sing-along rendition of “She’s Always a Woman.” “I want to bring out an old friend of mine,” he said. “We go back a long ways. We were both on the same label and we both almost got dumped by the label. This is an Oscar winner, a Grammy winner and a Tony Award winner. Please welcome Bruce Springsteen!”
By the time he said “both on the same label” cries of “Bruuuuce” began filling the arena, and when he said “Tony Award winner” they became almost deafening. But when Springsteen actually shuffled onto the stage it was hard to imagine anything short of a Led Zeppelin reunion getting a bigger response from the crowd, especially when a tech handed him a guitar and he kicked into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Feeding off the incredible energy from the place, Springsteen milked the moment for everything it was worth by jumping onto Joel’s piano and changing the lyrics to “the piano man joined the band … I’m going to sit right back easy and laugh while Jersey and Long Island bust this city in half.”
They followed it up with a euphoric rendition of “Born to Run” with Springsteen and Joel trading verses, just like they did for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary shows in 2009. Joel’s longtime saxophonist Mark Rivera handled the sax solo, though percussionist Crystal Taliefero – who took on that very task when she played in Springsteen’s “Other Band” in 1992 and ’93 – certainly could have handled it as well. When it was done, Springsteen ceded the stage back to Joel. That’s a very tough act to follow, so Joel broke out “Only the Good Die Young” from its standard spot in the encore section so he’d keep the energy level up.
Springsteen’s appearance will likely by the moment fans remember most from the show, but it was a mere 10 minutes of an incredible concert that lasted well over two hours. It began with “Big Shot” and “My Life” before Joel’s wife Alexis Roderick, young daughter Della Rose, agent Dennis Arfa and other longtime associates came out to watch the 100-show banner rise to the ceiling. Deep cuts like “Half a Mile Away” and “This Is the Time” mixed with classics like “Allentown” and “New York State of Mind,” though Joel let the crowd make a poor decision by voting with their cheers to have him play “The Downeaster Alexa” over “Leningrad.” He’s been doing this voting bit for years and it’s always a lot of fun, but for once we’d like to see the place pick “Leningrad.”
“Zanzibar” was a great showcase for trumpet player Carl Fischer, while guitarist-vocalist Mike DelGuidice (a longtime frontman for the Billy Joel tribute act Big Shot) showed off his incredible vocal range by singing the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” as an extended intro to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” The show ended with a long run of hits that included “Uptown Girl,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “You May Be Right.” Many of these moments will be familiar to veterans of recent Billy Joel shows at MSG, making spontaneous bits like Joel’s impromptu cover snippets of “I Will Survive” and “Summer in the City” all the more enjoyable. At this point he’d be forgiven for merely playing the same hits night after night, but he does all that he can to make sure each show is unique. That’s tough considering he’s only got 12 albums, but he’s willing to dig extremely deep into that catalog and into a wide assortment of covers to make it happen.
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When it came time for the inevitable “Piano Man” he strapped on the harmonica rack, played the opening notes and then paused for a long, deep breath. As the crowd screamed for him to begin his 1973 breakthrough hit, he took another breath and then glanced down at his watch with an exasperated look that seemed to say, “Do I really have to play this damn song again?” But then he smiled and dug into it like it was his very first time, not his 100th at this venue alone and perhaps 1,000th overall.
Joel first contemplated retirement when he decided to stop making new pop songs in the mid-Nineties. He thought about it again after he rang into the millennium with a blowout show at Madison Square Garden and then again when he underwent hip replacement surgery about a decade ago. His 100th MSG show happened to mark the exact 10-year anniversary of his landmark Last Play at Shea concert, a show so massive many thought he’d never do another one in New York since nothing could top it. But against all odds, he’s pushing 70, still gigging regularly, still booked every month at MSG for the foreseeable future and still singing in a voice that somehow refuses to age along with the rest of his body.
It’ll take him until late 2026 to reach 200 Madison Square Garden gigs if he keeps up this monthly residency. He’ll be 78 when that happens, and it’s very easy to imagine him still on that the same piano bench, still twirling around the mic stand during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” still pausing for a long breath before “Piano Man” and still loving every second of it.