"Remember 1980?" Billy Joel asked Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, and boy did we ever.
Playing the third of three sold-out concerts that marked this lifelong New Yorker's first visit to L.A.'s most iconic venue, Joel, 65, drew wild applause and inspired dancing in the aisles with a two-hour blast to various points in his past -- from "Everybody Loves You Now," the prescient show-biz lament from his 1971 debut, to the bouncy title track from 1993's "River of Dreams," his last album of new pop songs. (The singer's question about 1980 -- when he still had hair, he noted -- served to introduce "All for Leyna," from that year's "Glass Houses.")
Often, the music was triggering nostalgia for songs that offered nostalgia in the first place, as in "Uptown Girl," which he dedicated to Frankie Valli, and "Allentown," about the restlessness handed down by the so-called Greatest Generation. Yet Joel had more on his mind than memories. At its best, this frequently thrilling performance demonstrated how much he has left to tell us.
Here are five thoughts regarding the show.
1. Always a canny strategist, Joel made a brilliant move in hiring Gavin DeGraw as his opener. The younger piano man has a durable voice and a handful of hits (including "Not Over You" and "I Don't Want to Be," which he mashed up here with "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake), but everything about his act feels borrowed from older artists such as Lionel Richie, Mick Jagger and, of course, Billy Joel; there's no added value inside the catchy hooks and the exaggerated stage strut -- and therefore no threat of competition. You're watching DeGraw but thinking already about the headliner.
2. Though he's as indelibly linked to New York City as any artist from that town, Joel had plenty to say Tuesday about Los Angeles, including the fact that he doesn't need it.
"Some folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighborhood," he sang over the rippling chords of "New York State of Mind," the lights of Manhattan flickering on a video screen behind him, "Hop a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood." And here the crowd cheered so loudly that it seemed some folks had forgotten the song's next couplet: "But I'm taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line / I'm in a New York state of mind."
Fans were no less delighted to hear that the singer wrote "Piano Man" about his miserable-sounding early '70s gig in a lounge at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue.
3. Joel does an amazing Elton John impression. Early in the show, he explained that he'd be singing some of his lesser-known material -- songs he never got to perform while on his various tours with John, who Joel said discouraged playing anything but hits. Actually, Joel didn't mention John by name; he referred to his touring partner only as "the other guy," then busted out a pitch-perfect bit of "Your Song," pausing to refute John's lyric about not having much money. We got the message loud and clear.
4. If he's finished with John, would Joel consider a tour with Barry Manilow? He should. One highlight of Tuesday's show was "Zanzibar," the sports-bar set piece from "52nd Street" that sounded here like a grimier companion to "Copacabana." Pop stars have done some pretty ghastly things in the name of Broadway lately, but these two know how to blend the forms with natural style.
5. Joel didn't need to reference "Mighty Joe Young," as he did following an especially bitter rendition of "The Entertainer," to have us understand the concert as the acting-out of a caged animal. "Piano Man," "Everybody Loves You Now," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me": Again and again, Joel described the agony of a guy more or less forced to perform for the delectation of an audience with its own fixed ideas about his value. And he was never better than when venting that pressurized rage in "Big Shot" and "My Life" and "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," each as startlingly spiteful now as when it first scaled the charts.