Billy Joel was exactly one hour into his New Year’s Eve show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when it came time to select one final song before the ball dropped at midnight. Instead of slaying the capacity crowd with a huge hit, he reached way back to 1974’s Streetlife Serenade and resurrected the super obscurity “Souvenir.” “And your memories will turn to dust,” he sang without any accompaniment from his large band. “But that’s the price you pay/For ev’ry year is a souvenir/That slowly fades away.”
Almost nobody in the crowd seemed to know the tune, but they still listened to the sad, reflective song in awed silence — or at least they were as silent as 20,000 drunk Billy Joel fans can be in the final moments before midnight strikes on New Year’s Eve. When it ended, Joel counted down to the big moment about 30 seconds early, and then botched it again when he realized his mistake and started the count over. Nobody cared. As confetti rained down upon the audience, the entire place was singing “Auld Lang Syne” and dancing in the aisles.
The celebratory night (Joel’s first New York arena show since 2006) began shortly before 11:00 p.m. after a spirited set by a reunited Ben Folds Five. Joel kicked things off with “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” It’s essentially a science fiction tale about America turning into absolute chaos after New York is destroyed in 2017. When he wrote it nearly 40 years ago he couldn’t have possibly imagined singing it at a Brooklyn hockey arena just three years before the ludicrously far-off year of 2017. But there he was causing the place to go ballistic with the line “We held a concert out in Brooklyn to watch the island bridges blow.”
Joel addressed the crowd when the song ended. “This is actually the first time I’ve played Brooklyn since I was about 17,” he said. “I was in the band in the mid-1960s called the Lost Souls. We used to always play for these guys in Bay Ridge. They paid us real good, lots of cash. We went into the house, set up in the living room and everything looked like it came off the back of a truck. We were chasing after their daughters and stuff. I didnt know who these people were! Then I saw Goodfellas and figured it out. I could have gotten whacked!”
The New York-themed songs continued with “New York State of Mind,” but then Joel put the hits aside for a bit to focus on lesser-known tunes like the mournful “Where the Orchestra” and the ebullient/obsessive “All for Leyna.” “Until the Night” from 1978’s 52nd Street clearly tested the audience’s patience, but Joel has made it known he has no interest in only performing songs you hear every day on the radio. He hasn’t made a pop album in over 20 years, so dusting off the Christie Brinkley tribute “Blonde Over Blue” as opposed to the more obvious “Uptown Girl” makes a lot of sense, even if it causes some people to check their e-mail or get a beer.
New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was supposed to cut in live around 12:05 a.m. and Joel timed it so “Big Shot” would end right before that, but things were running a little behind at ABC. “They changed it?” Joel said. “It’s two minutes from right now? I could have played another song!” To kill the time, he lead the band through his 1974 instrumental “Root Beer Rag” before he was given the green light. The television audience got to hear a rollicking “You May Be Right,” and the final hour of the show was largely devoted to huge crowd pleasers like “River of Dreams” and “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”
Brooklyn is technically part of Long Island, and Joel’s army of fans from the area filled every inch of the arena. It’s quite possible that nobody was happier to be a part of the experience than Mike DelGuidice, lead singer of the Billy Joel tribute band Big Shot. In a story straight out of a movie, DelGuidice was actually hired to play guitar and sing back-up in Joel’s band a couple of months ago. The two of them have a remarkably similar look and voice, and watching them harmonize and interact onstage was wonderfully surreal.
It’s not exactly like Joel needs a lot of help in the singing department, though. His voice is remarkably powerful and sounds almost exactly like it did back in the 1970s. Many of his peers go to ridiculous lengths to look young, while their increasingly deep and strained voices reveal their actual age. Joel has never made even the slightest effort to mask his age, but somehow his vocal cords remain frozen in time.
As always, the main set wrapped up “Piano Man.” It’s easy to imagine that Joel would be happy to never sing that again, but it’s hard to hold something back that’s guaranteed to make 20,000 people deliriously happy. The encore began with “We Didn’t Start the Fire and closed out with “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Only the Good Die Young.”
Just like in the old days, Joel twirled the mic stand around during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and threw it a good 10 feet into the air. He’s a wonderful showman, and this gig was a perfect way to kick off a very busy year. He’s playing Madison Square Garden once a month for the indefinite future and going on his first solo tour since 2008. Just a year ago it seemed like he was retired, but something clearly motivated him to recommit to his career.
Mike DelGuidice is going along for the ride, but less than 24 hours after walking offstage at the Barclays Center he’s going to play BB Kings Blues Club in Times Square with his Billy Joel tribute band. Imagine playing “Piano Man” twice in the same day: once with Billy Joel at an arena and the other time in a basement club. Somebody’s 2014 is off to a very magical start.