Bottles of brew. Friendships to renew. Songs still ringing clear. And wow, what’s a piano pounder like you doing here?
Yes, the Scenes from Citizens Bank Park played out most sweetly as Billy Joel filled the South Philadelphia stadium with multigenerational fans on an absolutely perfect Friday night. Then he served us up with a fun, invigorating, and at times quite moving show, clocking more than two dozen songs and 2.5 hours that seemingly whisked by in an instant.
Both the holiday and the location sparked surprises from the Piano Man, marking his sixth annual visit to the location and umpteenth to the city.
“Good to be back in Philly,” Joel noted early, and really seemed to mean it, as his eyes glanced up at the packed stands before him. “If it wasn’t for you guys I wouldn’t be anywhere. It’s all your fault.”
Early (pre-Columbia Records-signing) club and college shows were then name-checked by the artist. And while the song is no longer in his regular concert set-list rotation (Joel thinks it’s dated) he punished us for making him a megastar with a rare and roaring performance of “Captain Jack” -- his cynical, drugs- and sex-tinged ode to wasted youth that jump-started the artist’s career here.
“Goodnight Saigon” was another beautiful bummer Joel pulled out of the rarely-done-anymore song chest, this night made especially apt and moving by the surprise appearance of a large military-garbed contingent. The soldiers and sailors added hearty voices to the war lament’s brutal “and we will all go down together” chorus. “Well, it is Memorial Day,” Joel reminded thereafter.
Likewise, his jazzy ballad ode to a “New York State of Mind” seemed to resonate differently this time around, in both a post 9/11 and “America built-by-immigrants” kind of way. Joel sang it with a new-found gravitas that owed a lot to the dramatic phrasing of Tony Bennett. And the lingering Statue of Liberty imagery splayed on the video screens spoke volumes to what we’ve gained and lost.
Billy Joel turned 70 earlier this month but is sounding younger and stronger than he did two years ago in the same ballpark (lucky me missed last year’s storm-drenched show). It seems he’s learned to pace and spell himself better, by giving over more of the vocal duties and even keyboard styling to members of his razor-sharp and harmonious ensemble. Some shared segments even got me thinking the show should be billed “A Night With the Billy Joel Band.”
Besides his usual, late-set operatic vocal turn on “Nessun Dorma” that segues (Victor Café style) into “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” guitarist/singer Mike DelGuidice also seized the reins with a howl that would do Robert Plant proud during the “favorite covers” segment of the Joel show. Offering back-to-back performances of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and “Good Times Bad Times” with guest drummer Jason Bonham, occasional occupant of the Led Zep percussion seat long populated by his late dad, John. The “first time we’ve ever tried this,” said Joel.
Stadium shows are all about turning back the clock, communally reliving the first times you heard a song and it changed your life. So easy to do with internationally embraced love songs like “Always a Woman” and angry-young-man anthems like “My Life,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that make up the recurring bulk of Joel’s touring show.
But as an early kindler of the flame, this fan can’t help but feel that Philly deserves more from Billy than just the hits. Dare I suggest a night or two at the intimate Wells Fargo Center (or maybe a year of Sundays at the Met) performing mostly B-sides and less-hyped album tracks that still rose to the status of radio turntable hits here in Joel Town? Yeah, ”It’s Just a Fantasy.” And “A Traveling Prayer.” “To Make You Feel My Love.” Get it on, “Billy the Kid”?