By the time the perfect night of cool August breezes (and no rain) ended, Saturday's sold-out Billy Joel show at Citizens Bank Park had made one thing evident: They don't write them like that anymore.
This is not solely a discussion of Joel's melodic charms, his rocker's take on Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley/Broadway hooks, his stance as a modern Gershwin, with twists of the Beatles, Bob Gaudio, and Donald Fagen.
What Joel provided to this mixed-age crowd was a life's soundtrack rich in urban, ethnic, specifically East Coast vibes and the kind of detailed character studies no songwriter does now, save within hip-hop. Then again, what could writers glean from a present so scrubbed clean, homogeneous, and gentrified? (Even Joel joked that the last time he was here - five years ago - "no building was higher than Billy Penn's hat").
Lounge-y, deeply etched soliloquies on taproom life ("Piano Man") and complex, melancholy snapshot-suites ("Scenes From an Italian Restaurant") were delicious remnants of city life pre-Watergate. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," complete with its "Expressway to Your Heart" intro and "ack-ack-ack" vocal line reminded kids that leaving their parents' basement was once desirable. From its blown-whistle intro to lyrics about Jersey Shore weekends and factories closing, "Allentown" was working-class in a way few writers could get the heads around without overreaching for bad poetry.
When he brought out local war veterans to help him sing the Bruegel-esque "Goodnight Saigon," it may have been heavy-handed, but if our government can't properly celebrate its heroes, why shouldn't Joel?
When he slowed to sing his blowsy, blue "New York State of Mind," his town became your town, Philly no different than Joel's Bronx or Queens. And he sounded young doing it all, his 65-year-old voice in top condition, from high Valli-ish notes on the spry Four Seasons-tribute "Uptown Girl" to his surprise, near-a capella teaming with Philly's Boyz II Men on "The Longest Time."
Playing rarities - the softly arch, jaggedly jazzy ballad "Vienna," a stammering "Zanzibar" with an oddball "Rocky Theme" intro - along with fever-pitched hits, Joel and his tight band sounded so crisp, it was like listening to one of his albums. Magnificent.