Words & Photos by Rod Snyder
As the sun set behind Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, I made my way into the venue for an evening with The Piano Man himself, Billy Joel.
I’ve seen Billy Joel perform numerous times over the years. In fact, his was the first concert I ever attended, but 15 years had passed since the last time I’ve been in his presence. I was eager to see him live again, as were the other thousands of people that made up the 4th consecutive year sell-out for him at the ballpark. As I made my way to center field, where the stage was set up, I took notice of the crowd. While Billy Joel is an American icon and has been around for close to 5 decades, he still appeals to the younger crowd. His catalog is still in heavy rotation on both satellite and terrestrial radio.
Maybe even the great Roy Hobbs didn’t want to miss the show tonight, as the theme song for “The Natural” starting playing over the PA system. Timed with the composition, the lights went dark and the band situated themselves at what would be their office for the next 2.5 hours. In the dark you could see Joel strapping on his Sunburst Fender Stratocaster, the guitar he uses for the song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Well he did this night. The song was a great opener, and how can you not sing along? I dare you to try, it’s just too damn catchy!
He took to his piano for “My Life”, a song from the classic 52nd St. Then, he rounded out the first three songs with oldest tune of the night, “Everybody Loves You Now”, from the 1971 Cold Spring Harbor album.
Next, Joel let the crowd select from two songs that the band could play. He’s been doing this for a while now, but while playing ballparks, he calls them “fielder’s choice”. First, fans chose between “Summer Highland Falls” or “Just the Way You Are”. That’s a tough call, but you gotta go with “Summer Highland Falls”, and that’s what won out. The next fielder’s choice was between “Zanzibar”, the jazz soaked tune about a trying to pick up a waitress in a sports bar, or “Big Man on Mulberry Street”. “Zanzibar” won out, but I do like “Big Man on Mulberry Street”, especially the live version. The third choice was between “Honesty” and “Vienna”, from the classic album, The Stranger. This was an obvious choice: “Vienna” clearly won.
The show was in full swing by now, with beach balls being bopped around by the crowd at the front of the stage while Joel and his band returned to the setlist and went into “The Entertainer”. At the end of the song, he made reference to its lyrics, “But if I grow cold I won’t get sold. I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack like another can of beans.” He joked, saying, “what did I know back then?”. His last album (The River of Dreams) was put out in 1993, and he’s still selling out stadiums and arenas on a regular basis!
As the piano rotated 180 degrees, Joel took a sip from his NYPD mug and reminded the audience that 50 years ago, during “The Summer of Love”, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A full version of “A Day in the Life” followed – it was true to form, and sounded great.
One thing I noticed throughout the show was the great harmonies from the band, and the stellar saxophone work of the longest tenured member of The Billy Joel Band, Mark Rivera. He set up a stool for “New York State of Mind”, a great song that has taken on new meaning in recent years. The tempo has slowed down a bit from my last time seeing it live, but that didn’t matter. I noticed during the entire song, that Mark was all smiles, and he had some great solos, especially during the ending.
The last fielder’s choice of the night was between “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”, or “Captain Jack”. I heard people call out for “Ballad”, but c’mon, really? “Captain Jack” is a song he only plays in Philly! Back in 1972, local radio station WMMR helped promote a live show that lead to Joel landing his first record deal with Columbia Records. Listeners won tickets to attend the show, where he played three unrecorded tracks from his upcoming Piano Man LP – “Captain Jack” being one of them. “Captain Jack” was an instant hit, and the live version was played for the next year and a half on the station. I was used to hearing this as the final encore at the shows I attended, but this was a nice change of pace. Of course it was well received and the crowd sang along, once again, to the Philly staple.
With The Stranger LP receiving the most love tonight, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” was up next. Then, the piano cam focused on Joel’s fingers during the center part of “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie”, reminding fans how easy he makes playing the piano seem. With the crowd waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye, it was time for “Piano Man”, the iconic classic, the epitome of Billy Joel.
Really, he only needs to play the piano here. The audience could sing the entire song, like one big karaoke session, but where the crowd (and not the microphone) smelled like a beer. The band left the stage for a few minutes, and the fans at Citizens Bank Park took out their phones and lit up the dark stadium. A sight that used to be a flickering orange glow of Bic liters back in the day, is now a white glow of a thousand cell phones. The band came back and did five encores, one after another: “Uptown Girl”, the rocker, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”, “Big Shot”, “Only the Good Die Young”, and the set closer, “You May Be Right”.
As I exited the stadium, I couldn’t help but feel satiated. The 68 year old entertainer is still able to do what he has done for decades – put on one hell of a show. Clocking in close to 3 hours, Joel and his band play longer than a lot of younger bands these days.
As I sat in traffic on Darian Street, I heard the sound of police sirens. It would be Billy Joel’s entourage being escorted past me, and making their way to I-95 on their way home. A fitting way to end the evening.
We didn’t start the fire
Everybody loves you now
Flight of the bumblebees
Say goodbye to Hollywood
Don’t ask me why
A day in the life
Movin’ out (Anthony’s song)
She’s always a woman
New York state of mind
Sometimes a fantasy
The river of dreams
Take it easy
River of dreams reprise
Scenes from an Italian restaurant
It’s still rock and roll to me
Only the good die young
You may be right
TheWaster.com | Philly