Just two songs into his set at the tiny Paramount Theater in Huntington, Long Island, Billy Joel made it clear this wasn’t going to be his standard show. “We’re not going to play all hits tonight,” he said. “I’m tired of that shit. We want to mix in some other stuff that we haven’t done for a long time.”
The concert, essentially an open rehearsal for Joel’s upcoming mini-European tour that doubled as a benefit for the food bank Long Island Cares, was quietly announced Tuesday morning, about an hour before tickets went on-sale. It still sold out within seconds, and scalpers were charging upwards of $4,000 a seat. Hordes of people stood outside the 1,600 seat club, begging strangers for a ticket, and it’s really no surprise. Outside of two festival dates earlier this year, this was his first full show since his co-headlining tour with Elton John wrapped in early 2010, and he hasn’t played a legit headlining gig since Valentine’s Day of 2009.
A few things were apparent during the opening song, “Everybody Loves You Now” from Joel’s 1971 debut LP Cold Spring Harbor. He moved to the piano a little slowly (no doubt due to his hip replacement a few years back), but his voice was shockingly powerful and he was clearly having an absolute blast. He seemed to be going through the motions on those last few Elton John tours, but the long break has obviously revitalized him. It’s been a long time since he’s played a room anywhere near as tiny as the Paramount, and he soaked in every bit of love from the screaming fans, who had absolutely no idea they’d be seeing Billy Joel in concert when they woke up the previous morning.
He wasn’t kidding about steering clear of the hits, at least in the first half of the show. Early on he busted out the The Stranger deep cut “Vienna,” the Streetlife Serenade gem “The Entertainer” and “Great Wall of China” from River of Dreams. It might be tough to pull off these tracks in a stadium, but this was a club full of die-hard Long Island Billy Joel going nuts and many of them greeted each tune with delirious glee.
Even the fanatics had to search their memory banks for The Nylon Curtain tracks “Room of Her Own” and “She’s Right on Time,” not to mention “Stop in Nevada” from Piano Man. The latter song was from Joel’s brief period where he tried to write western-themed material. “I moved out to California and was there for three years,” he said. “I’d go into the mountains and I was into this whole country thing and western thing and I decided to try and write a song like one of those songs.”
Absolutely nothing in his catalog seemed off limits, even “Blonde Over Blue,” a gushing tribute to his ex-wife Christie Brinkley from River of Dreams. “I don’t think we’ve ever done this one, ever,” he said before trying it out. “So this might be a train wreck. This may be the only time we ever do it.” They pulled it off without a hitch. “I like that one,” he said afterwards. “I’m going to keep it.”
Some songs are unknown for a reason, and just about the only bumpy moment of the night was “This Is the Time” from The Bridge, which even Joel admits is his worst album. It’s simply a schmaltzy song that never takes off. He followed it up with “Don’t Ask Me Why,” a standout tune from Glass Houses.
Even though he sprinkled in a few crowd-pleasers like “New York State of Mind,” “Allentown” and “Movin’ Out” into the first half of the show, a small minority of fans seemed a bit bored with so much (at least to them) unfamiliar material. Those people jumped to their feet, however, when he played the opening notes of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” This is practically the Long Island National Anthem, and nearly every person screamed every single word in the saga of Brenda and Eddie at the top of their lungs.
The rest of the night was a greatest hits parade, including “River of Dreams,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “You May Be Right” and, of course, “Piano Man.” Some of those songs I thought I never had to hear again, but when he straps on the harmonica and plays the opening notes of “Piano Man” it’s impossible to avoid getting caught up in the moment. The entire room filled with euphoria, and the familiar tale of the real estate novelist, Davy from the Navy and the microphone that smells like a beer suddenly feels new again.
Joel was never a critical favorite during his heyday, and the endless criticism must have played at least a small role in his decision to stop releasing pop songs twenty years ago. But with each passing year, love for the man seems to grow, and it’s becoming harder and harder to remember a time when the tastemakers deemed him uncool. Simply put, he’s outlasted the haters, and (to steal a line from Matt Stone in the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage) you gotta give it up to him now, or you’re just being a dickhead.
It’s unclear how much of this show will make it into the cavernous arenas of England and Ireland later this month, but hopefully he won’t lose his courage and he’ll continue to devote over half the show to rarities. There’s no word on more American dates, but his final words to the crowd were fairly hopeful: “Maybe we’ll see you soon.”