POP MUSIC REVIEW : Billy Joel: An Inconsistent Man : Despite an uneven performance, the Sports Arena concert is a crowd-pleaser. The singer plays the self-deprecating egotist to the hilt.


Billy Joel has such a strong rapport with his audience that he effectively played mind-reader during his show on Monday at the Sports Arena, addressing virtually anything fans might have likely been thinking.

At times it seemed almost as much a mass telepathic interview as a concert:

* During his powerhouse ballad “An Innocent Man,” Joel let his female backup singer take over some of the key lines in the chorus. Gee, Billy, can’t quite reach that upper range anymore?

“About 10 years ago I recorded that little sucker,” he explained after the song concluded. “I actually could hit the high notes back then.”


* There was a notebook on top of Joel’s piano. Hmmm, can’t remember how “Piano Man” goes anymore, Billy?

“I could have a TelePrompTer up here and try to B.S. you,” he noted, explaining the presence of the crib notes. “I just feel good that it’s here, because sometimes I forget (expletive). I probably don’t need it--it’s like safe sex.”

In a way, Joel’s ongoing rap constituted its own kind of risk-reducing intercourse, as the wiry pop pugilist played the self-deprecating egotist to the hilt.

He continued to punctuate his well-paced two-hour show with occasional Carnac routines on everything from his piano’s revolving platform (“I know what you (in the back) are thinking: ‘So his piano spins around. Whoop-de-do. We ain’t gettin’ any closer to that fuzzy little head.’ ”) to predicting how his optimistic take on aging might be received (“The 40s are all right. ‘Yeah, easy for him to say! He’s a rich rock star! He married Christie Brinkley!’ ”).

The song choices served to point out just how unevenly Joel has applied his talent over the years, all the way up to the overreaching pretensions that flaw his latest hit album, “River of Dreams” (which, surprisingly, provided only four of the numbers in his 19-song set).

But the way he connected with his fans here--going out of his way to deflate any hints of star iconography at every turn, yet always remaining the cockiest sort of likable son of a gun--made it clear why his career is on the up-side of turnaround yet again.


The mostly retrospective show managed to encompass both the best song Joel has written (“An Innocent Man”) and the worst (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”), providing a repeat demonstration of why the craftsman is at his least graceful when he’s shooting to be the poor man’s Don Henley and at his most charming when he’s content to be the rich man’s Neil Diamond.

In tone, Joel jumped--sometimes literally--all around, from the serious intonations of “Goodnight Saigon” (replete with helicopter sound effects) to the mike-twirling shenanigans of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” To detractors, this is part of what makes Joel a major talent and a minor artist.

But to the fans, there’s no inconsistency in a fellow who plays the piano with his butt in one Elton-esque breath and croons ever so earnestly about the dangers of cultural imperialism in the next; he’s Billy the rugged individualist at all turns, be he comic or commentator.

You don’t need to be a mind-reader to know that Joel’s broad, all-purpose style will charm crowds well after he’s training bifocals on that piano-top notebook.