American Airlines Arena, Miami
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Better than: The Billy of old? Just maybe...
Most artists are defined by their songs. That's certainly the case with Billy Joel. Though some would dismiss him as merely another pop artifact, Joel has written songs that have become even more resilient with time. His recordings reflect the drive and defiance of a man who is far more authentic than most singer/songwriters ever allow themselves to be.
During the two-plus hours he held court at the American Airlines Arena in Miami this past Saturday, it became increasingly clear that the songs he sang so early on in his career had not only aged well and become familiar anthems but were also prophetic pronouncements both he and his audience could continue to reference well over 40 years after their initial inception.
"Sing me a song, I'm the piano man," Joel sang so knowingly, causing the crowd to not only howl with devotion but also to sing along so sweetly. In this case, it became a communal, and quite emotional, experience. In fact, practically every song was something akin to a campfire sing-along. Except here there was no campfire, and instead of a few intrepid souls out in the wild, there were more than 20,000 strong, joining in on every word as this venerable entertainer led the charge.
That common bond made for several high points in the performance. The opening charge of "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" was one, of course. And then the ode to the Big Apple, "New York State of Mind," drove the many native New Yorkers in attendance to echo the same enthusiasm as Miamians displayed for the first tune. There was a beautiful solo piano read of "She's Always a Woman," which brought some to tears.
Other notable moments included a revved-up version of the blue-collar offering "Allentown," a rocking "the River of Dreams" interspersed with a perfect "A Hard Day's Night," and, oddly enough, a roadie's rendition of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," which seemed a completely strange respite and yet also proved that the seniors in the audience were still rarin' to rock.
"I don't care what they say anymore, this is my life," Joel sang, and the lyric seemed all too apt. Nearly a quarter century after releasing his last album, Billy Joel has nothing left to prove. Despite the wrecked romances, wrecked cars, time spent in rehab, and all the other mistrials that landed him on the front pages of the tabloids, he can still command a sell-out show and inspire the crowd's abject devotion. "You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a loooonatic you're looking for," he wailed as the crowd sang along, everyone putting emphasis on that last line.
It was, in fact, a perfect concert, built on perfect pop songs (has there ever been a better-constructed song cycle than the glorious "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," one that takes its listeners from a romantic facade to full-flight rock?).
Note-for-note renditions captured every nuance, all presided over by an artist so credible and creative, he knows exactly how to please. Given the fact he's performed these songs thousands of times over the past 40 years, how is it he and the band can still look like they're having such fun? Joel definitely seemed to be enjoying himself, giving knowing nods to the audience, smiling broadly when they did a particularly good job of repeating the words, and even taking some shots at his own expense. "I look just like my dad now," he lamented after glancing at himself on the giant screen behind the stage. "I never wanted to look like my dad!"
Likewise, the rotating piano gave the entire audience, many of whom sat behind the stage, an opportunity to view both sides of his profile. "That's it for the special effects," Joel joked. "The piano spins this way and spins that way."
In truth, that's all that was needed. It wasn't so much a concert as a gathering of the faithful, a hometown reunion of sorts where artist and audience were able to celebrate the bonds between them -- enduring, emotional, and timeless. "You remember 1971?" Joel asked incredulously after introducing "Everybody Loves You Now," a song culled from his very first album, Cold Spring Harbor. "Then you weren't there!"
But the thing is, many of those in attendance were there, relishing the triumph Joel trumpeted at the fore. They laughed along when Joel, flush full of tough-guy New York attitude, made mention of "that other guy" (named Elton) he had played with previously, sang a few bars of "Your Song," and abruptly ended it with the lyric about "I don't have much money," and spit "Bullshit."
On the other hand, Joel could be quite gracious, giving the audience a choice between certain songs at various intervals. "Vienna" won out over "Summer Highland Falls," "Zanzibar" beat out "Big Man on Mulberry Street," while "The Downeaster Alexa" rousted "All for Leyna." Good choices all, but the show reached another new peak with the five-song encore, beginning with "Uptown Girl" and ending with the sad but ironic, "Only the Good Die Young."
"Don't drink and drive," Joel admonished the crowd prior to departure. "Do like I do. Take a limousine."
Ah, indeed. It's still rock 'n' roll, after all.
Opener Jamie Cullum also did a fine job doing what he set out to do, that is to rouse the crowd's enthusiasm. The young Brit's initial opener, a daring take on Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cried Mary," may have been a concession to the generally older demographic, but regardless, Cullum's obvious enthusiasm and kinetic activity served him well. All in all, he and his group offered the impression they were a jazzy jam band, but Cullum has the charisma to suggest he's capable of headlining tours of his own.
Personal bias: It was odd to see a couple with a toddler sitting in front of us and a guy who looked like Yoda sitting to my right. There were also a bunch of dudes who looked like they were from the old neighborhood behind us. But then again, that was the kind of all-embracing show it was.
The crowd: It was a pretty good crowd for a Saturday...
By the way: It's hard to think of another artist who could sell out an amphitheater with no new record to promote. But as Joel himself marveled, when describing the irony contained in the cautionary showbiz tale "The Entertainer," "I had no idea what I was talking about in that song. I haven't been in the charts for 23 years!"
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Everybody Loves You Now
New York State of Mind
The Downeaster Alexa
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
And So It Goes
She's Always a Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
Sometimes a Fantasy
Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover)
The River of Dreams/A Hard Day's Night
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young
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