Last Night: Billy Joel at Hard Rock Live

Categories: Concert Review

Sayre Berman

Billy Joel
Friday, January 2, 2009

Hard Rock Live, Hollywood


Being a piano man in a rock 'n' roll world can be a precarious proposition. Unless you have the cool of, say Jerry Lee Lewis, with the attitude and swagger to match, it's tough not to look like a dweeb sitting stationary behind a keyboard while your band mates are posing, posturing and reaping adulation from the adoring masses. Even a one-time madcap like Elton John has his limitations. Strip away the wacky costumes and the attempt at acrobatics and you get a pudgy balding guy with a nebbish name like Reginald Dwight who could just as easily ended up an accountant. After all, when you typecast a piano player whose repertoire is heavily stocked with syrupy, schmaltzy ballads, it's almost assumed that it will be somebody like Barry Manilow setting the standard.

Enter Billy Joel, an artist whose four decades of mega hits and oft-covered standards has made him the poster boy of pop success. But the epitome of a rock star? That's a question up for debate The majority of his tunes borrow a template more akin to cabaret, be it "Piano Man," his lofty signature song, "The Entertainer," a bittersweet statement about the fleeting nature of fame, or "My Life," a song seething with smug sentiments. Fact is, even Joel himself realized early on that his rocker cred could be lacking, compelling him to record the album Glass Houses, a record widely touted as an attempt to purvey an Angry Young Man persona in sync with the punk platitudes of that era.
The ruse worked, but only to a degree. While experience gained from stints with his earlier, earthier outfits the Hassles and Attila had established a precedent for an edgier approach, it never found him fully committed to that more aggressive attitude, guitar in hand be damned. Today, he's a comfortable multi-millionaire who often frequents the eateries of South Beach, in some ways still a boy from the Bronx who balances a tough guy person with a streak of sentiment.

Given the fact that he's now a part time resident of these environs, the first of a six night stint at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood clearly seemed like a homecoming of sorts, a much anticipated return for an artist the locals can claim as their own. "I was hanging out in New York over the holidays and it sucked," Joel complained after a typically stirring version of "New York State of Mind." Noting the frigid temperatures up north, he added, "I feel a bit hypocritical. I don't feel like I'm in a New York state of mind at the moment."

In fact, the entire concert was peppered with self-deprecating one-liners, as well as extensive introductions of each song that had him noting the success - or lack of it - of the albums from which they were borne. Somewhat surreptitiously, he also acknowledged that delicate divide between his reputation as the amiable balladeer and his deeper desire to portray a ballsy rock 'n' roller. Bringing out one of the road crew to wail an odd and unexpected rendition of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," he offered a nod to "all the guys who brought their girlfriends to a Billy Joel concert but in reality didn't want to come in the first place."

Ultimately, Joel needed no excuses. While some songs were clearly tipped towards toward his MOR mantra - the aforementioned "New York State of Mind," vamped up and sung like Sinatra, "An Innocent Man," which he spoofed by insisting the song was circa 1924, "She's Always A Woman," treated as a swaying serenade, and "Piano Man," the obligatory final encore -- most of the offerings found a suitable balance between rock and repose. The apt opener, "Miami 2017," began as a dramatic opus only to morph into a tour de force.  Likewise, emphatic readings of "Angry Young Man," "Zanzibar," "Don't Ask Me Why," "I'm Moving Out," "I Go to Extremes," "We Didn't Start the Fire," and, natch, "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" (which found him twirling the mike stand with a finesse that would have Roger Daltrey nodding his approval) amped up the energy level.

The audience, an unusually diverse blend of young enthusiasts and older, aging devotees, soaked it all up -- standing, dancing and singing along to lyrics thoroughly ingrained in the collective consciousness. Even those tunes that could be classified as pure unapologetic pop - "Don't Ask Me Why," "Movin' Out," "Allentown" -- clearly hit their mark, thanks to a crack eight piece backing band that added their muscle to the melodies. Most of the musicians were veterans of his touring ensemble and they reveled in the enthusiastic outpour, particularly Mark Rivera, the man responsible for the many memorable sax solos, and percussionist, singer and secondary sax player Crystal Taliefero, who also frequently stole the spotlight. The lighting was also extraordinary, synchronized to each song as if it was playing along like another member of the band.

Not surprisingly then, Joel proved himself to be the ultimate entertainer, evidencing the kind of showmanship that affirmed he was clearly connected to the crowd. He tirelessly worked the first rows, shaking dozens of hands of those pressed against the stage and when he sat, he was positioned at a piano set on a turntable that rotated to give those on either side of the stage an equal vantage point and perspective. "I don't know about you, but this year is starting out pretty great for me," he boasted early on, acknowledging the enviable status he's been elevated to by his success. "This is really a great job," he went on to add. "If you can get a job like this, I suggest you take it."

At a time when more and more people are losing jobs, their homes and their portfolios, Joel's self-satisfaction might have otherwise been lost on those not fortunate enough to be reaping riches as a pop star. But for the two hours and fifteen minutes during which he shared his musical bounty, his audience had plenty of opportunity to soak up some celebratory vibes.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: With such an ample catalogue, it was inevitable every song would be famously familiar. Still, few shows could be considered a more perfect primer for an artist's repertoire.

Random Detail: It's been over fifteen years since Joel's last pop album, the somewhat obtuse River of Dreams. His only other offering since, the ironically dubbed Fantasies & Delusions, affirmed his classical ambitions. With rumors circulated that he might quit touring and with his own expressed ambivalence about whether or not he'll ever record again, Joel's future seems uncertain. If this stint is the end, however, he's leaving at the top of his game.

By the Way: While there's a perception that all five of Joel's remaining concerts have sold out, Hard Rock officials insist that premium priced VIP seats are still available for all the upcoming shows. And for those watching their wallets, there are still seats to be had for a more modest $97 for the January 18, February 6 and February 8 performances.

Click here to view the full slideshow of the performance.

-- Lee Zimmerman
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