Billy Joel has spoken freely of a time in his performing career when he was bored playing live, phoning it in onstage while contemplating what might be on the room service menu later.
Saturday’s epic and electric show at Dodger Stadium was not one of those nights.
Before an all-ages crowd that eagerly and ably offered up its services as a backing choir early and often, the classic rocker played more than two dozen tunes in a nearly 2½- hour show. Joel also welcomed two very special guests — feisty pop singer-songwriter Pink and Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose — to the stage for a set list of hits, deep cuts and covers that served as a trip back through the mists of time.
Joel and his drum-tight eight-piece backing band easily drove all over a map that traversed most of his recorded output. They zipped from the defiant bounce of “My Life” and the ruminative balladry of “She’s Always a Woman” to the whizzering keyboard riffs of frayed-nerve rocker “Sometimes a Fantasy” and the languid, ahead-of-its time ode to unplugging “Vienna.” A bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” was dropped into amped-up closer “You May Be Right,” and lush, layer-cake harmonies highlighted the street-corner symphony of the doo-wop delight “The Longest Time,” a nifty a cappella feat in a stadium.
(You could build an entire separate concert from the bona-fide hits and popular album cuts Joel didn’t play Saturday night.)
The Long Island native also waxed nostalgic about the years he spent in L.A. in the early days of his career. He reminisced about toiling at the piano bar that would inspire “Piano Man” — shouting out the Hollywood Hills, Studio City and the Troubadour among others as seminal locales — and romped through his Ronettes/Phil Spector pastiche “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” He also surveyed the stadium with a bit of wonder that this is where his once-beloved Brooklyn Dodgers ended up and marveled at the distance in a career between a club like the Troubadour and a packed stadium.
Although some of his onstage banter has lingered in his set for some time, the 68-year-old singer-songwriter infused his favorite bits — breaking down the multiple geographical and historical mistakes in the grandiose “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” and the angry young pop star cynicism of “The Entertainer”— with self-deprecation and vigor. He even poked fun at a false start to “Allentown,” calling it an “authentic rock and roll [mistake.] At least you know we’re not playing to tapes!”
Indeed, each member of the band was given a moment to shine, with stand-out moments including Carl Fischer’s trumpet reveries during “Zanzibar,” stalwart sax man and backing vocalist Mark Rivera adding verve to “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and the elegant vocals of Mike DelGuidice — plucked in 2013 from a Billy Joel tribute band he still fronts in his off time— on the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma.”
Joel also got a couple of vital assists from outside the band that helped him catch his breath.
Pink emerged first to add her sass and scorch to a duet of “New York State of Mind” and then perform her own soaring anthem “Try,” visibly digging harmonizing with Joel’s mighty, longtime utility player Crystal Taliefero. (Joel scooted out for a portion of “Try,” and Pink said with a grin, “I’m his pee break.”)
Later, Joel introduced Rose to the delight of much of the genuinely surprised crowd for a raucous run through AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
For the small sliver of the Venn diagram where longtime Joel admirers overlap with Guns N’ Roses fanatics and people who love both iterations of AC/DC — they exist, trust — it was an exhilarating moment. Rose, of course, temporarily, and controversially to some, stepped in for Brian Johnson in 2016 to help AC/DC finish its “Rock or Bust” tour, and Joel has frequently played “Highway” over the last few years with his longtime roadie “Chainsaw” providing vocals. (And, random coincidental fun fact: Rose’s first name is William.)
The stomping cover also provided a power surge to the next song, infusing a high-voltage charge into the event-packed historical laundry list that is “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Rose, who has cited many pop acts as inspiration over the years, including Elton John, proved the depth of his fandom by practically sneaking onstage during the encore to perform an adept, and apt, take on “Big Shot,” with Joel chiming in during the choruses.
(Speaking of John, Joel also played a snippet of “Your Song,” gently snarking on his frenemy.)
While he may have (half-)jokingly feigned breathlessness toward the end of the evening — pivoting from the rapid-fire interludes of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” to the waltz-time sway of his signature tune “Piano Man” — Joel charmingly slogged it out. And though his energy may have been fading, his voice was not, as he hit, and admirably held, high notes from beginning to end.
Nearly 30 years ago, Joel told Rolling Stone magazine, “I might be an antique… but antiques are of value.” He may see himself as antique, but his catalog — and the vibrancy he brings to it — continues to prove its worth, even as he wears an older man’s clothes, offering an opportunity to unplug for one night and revel in story and melody.
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