Review: Billy Joel’s first concert at Hollywood Bowl: An L.A. ‘Piano Man’

Billy Joel performs at the Hollywood Bowl on May 17 -- after decades in the business, his first show at the landmark venue.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

“Here’s a song I wrote when I was working at Wilshire and Western,” Billy Joel said Saturday during his first ever performance at the Hollywood Bowl, introducing “Piano Man” from 1973. The detail no doubt came as a surprise to many who consider Joel an archetypal New Yorker and the record a celebration of city life.

But, no, for a few years in the early 1970s, Joel lived in Los Angeles, where he spent time sparring with labels and lawyers and entertaining the boozers at a piano bar called the Executive Room.

There he met the characters who occupied the song he and his band delivered to the sold-out Hollywood Bowl. On “a pretty good night for a Saturday” indeed, Joel, now 65, reminisced about bartender John, Paul the “real estate novelist,” Davy from the Navy and various businessmen slowly getting stoned. Somewhere in the sold-out crowd were perhaps a few sixty- or seventysomethings who saw him back in the day. Hopefully, none will sue for royalties.


Performing the first of three shows at the Bowl, Joel arrived on the stage like in “Piano Man” -- just after 9 p.m. -- and performed nearly two hours’ worth of hits from throughout his multi-platinum, Grammy-winning career. He offered the middle-of-the-road sing-song hits ingrained in the brains of generations of Americans, some solid, others cloying, all delivered with a New York accent, toe-tapping melodies and that assured voice and phrasing. (The artist will also perform on the same stage on May 22 and 27.)

A witty grump with a sailor’s mouth and a gray Van Dyke, the artist acknowledged the occasion of his first Bowl gig early. Pointing behind him, he said he’d lived just over the hill on the other side of Mulholland. Later he detailed his departure in a rare performance of “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.”

Joel’s songs are their own little worlds, piano-driven miniatures with narrative and melodic arcs that take a thematic conceit and explore it with well-crafted lines, Tin Pan Alley- and Brill Building-inspired structure and a dollop of musical theater. On Saturday, he offered them as picture-perfect replicas, played precisely as written, with few updates or expansions.

The best of them retained spark and energy so many years later, and suggested a composer whose muse at key moments in his career was as sharp as his tongue. On the aforementioned “Hollywood,” he offered bittersweet lines about the passage of time and devotion to friends while the band delivered girl group-accented arrangements. On “The Entertainer,” Joel wrestled with his lot in life while dotting notes on the grand piano, a musician with “perspiration stains and varicose veins” whose fate is decided by fickle fans and financiers.

The lesser work, though, felt anachronistic. “Pressure” anticipated the chaos of the Reagan years and the rise of the Information Age but seemed layered with instrumental dust: “All your life is Time Magazine/I read it too/What does it mean,” he wondered of an era that in hindsight sounds pretty quaint.

Ditto “Sometimes a Fantasy,” perhaps the least seductive song about phone sex ever written. (For the most, see Trina’s bawdy, not-safe-for-work “Phone Sex.”) “New York State of Mind” captured smoky, carefree mid-1970s Manhattan -- minus the joyous grooves of disco -- right down to a saxophone solo reminiscent of the “Saturday Night Live” band.


The members of Joel’s ensemble -- drums, bass, guitar, percussion, keyboards and brass -- were well practiced and never missed a note, but they seldom felt truly explosive. They hit the beats, nailed the melodies, teased grooves, but the closest they came to joyful abandon or transcendence -- as in the groin and not the brain leading the charge -- was during “Movin’ Out” and “Big Shot,” two of Joel’s more incendiary rants.

Elsewhere, they offered a musical tour diary, with visits to Vienna, Paris, Zanzibar, Allentown, New York and, in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” Oyster Bay, Long Island. During his nearly-funky “The River of Dreams,” Joel and band shifted into the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” for a few verses, and when they did so, Joel’s voice nailed those notes with impressive skill.

An easy conversationalist whose decades spent behind a piano have served him well, banter-wise, the pianist was in good spirits, acknowledging his recent birthday with a tone of shocked resignation. “You’re supposed to retire at 65,” he said, to which the crowd bellowed in the negative. Joel’s reply suggested a Long Island cabbie: “Hey! Fifty years! Gimme a break!” He teasingly shot down a request for “Honesty” with a cussed comment about the song’s lack of merit, quoted the piano run of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” and said he wished he’d written it.

The only Hollywood moment came near the end when Maroon 5 singer, reality show judge and People Magazine’s reigning “sexiest man alive” Adam Levine showed up to sing “You May Be Right.” Dueting with Joel and accompanied by the musicians and guest guitarist Davey Johnstone of Elton John’s band, the team fueled an otherwise fading crowd to push up the adrenalin.

Joel once called his time living in Los Angeles “a great mistake,” which from one perspective -- those who wish “Piano Man” had never been written, for example -- may be true. We had Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits, after all. But Joel didn’t call it a mistake on Saturday. Rather, throughout his time on the city’s grandest stage, he performed with a well-earned air of accomplishment.

In fact, the hits galore and many singalong moments confirmed that he’d probably made the right choice all those years ago in saying goodbye to Hollywood. To his credit, he never said “I told you so” at the Bowl. At least yet. Two more opportunities await.