Billy Joel’s The Entertainer arrived 14 songs into his first of two nearly sold-out concerts at Sunrise’s BB&T Center Tuesday night.
The 40-year-old song is a sarcastic and angry dig at his record company for insisting he shorten his singles for radio consumption and to tirelessly chase the star-making machinery that fuels the music business.
Today, Joel, at 64, is no longer “the entertainer” fronting a “long-haired band” as he did in his hit-making heyday. He’s heavier, dressed in dark suit and tie, and his hair departed about the same time he released his last studio album 20 years ago.
Back when, in the ’70s and ’80s, his performances were energetic, scrappy examples of rock star gymnastics. The star would leap about his piano and use every inch of his stage to tear apart perceived enemies — usually music critics who unfairly dismissed his carefully crafted, melodic pop music as Tin Pan Alley-Broadway hackwork and claimed he wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll enough. His love songs, like Just the Way You Are, on the surface seemed like Valentine’s to the wives he had at the time they were written but they were laced with uncertainty and a rocker’s attitude. “What will it take ‘till you believe in me?” he stressed on that 1977 standard, a Grammy-winning Record of the Year he seldom performs anymore, citing boredom with the familiar tune.
If he leaves out most of his romantic ballad hits, the ones critics used to challenge his rocker’s credibility (only the pretty She’s Always a Woman found its way into Tuesday’s two-hour setlist) Joel also leaves the showier “Entertainer” label behind as well. The singer no longer works the stage and his backside seldom leaves the bench at his Steinway. An exception was We Didn’t Start the Fire in which Joel strapped on a guitar but he isn’t in any danger of losing his “Piano Man” sobriquet.
That’s not to say, however, that a Billy Joel concert isn’t entertaining. On the contrary. His body might not be willing but his primary instrument — his voice — is remarkably youthful and pliable and it was a delight to hear his hits and deep album cuts performed so beautifully by Joel and his excellent road band. Close your eyes when he sings old genre-hopping songs like the doo-wop charmer, The Longest Time, the crowd-pleasing street opera, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, or the snotty rocker You May Be Right at Saturday night’s BB&T second concert and you can be forgiven if you feel your time machine plopped you back in 1983. Even All for Leyna, the catchiest rocker on his 1980 album, Glass Houses, sounded more ’80s on this tour, thanks to brisk jabs on an electric keyboard, than it did originally in that decade.
Joel, who begins an unprecedented residency at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Jan. 27, also subtly urged his audience to reconsider songs he wrote 30 and 40 years ago and, for a long-time fan, this made Tuesday’s concert, which was opened by an engaging Gavin DeGraw, feel fresh and vital given he no longer releases pop music.
His nine-piece band, which includes veterans Mark Rivera on saxophone and Crystal Taliefero on sax, percussion and backing vocals, complement and bolster the vocalist by lending accents, like a backing harmony or instrumental flourish, to extend the range Joel might have lost to time.
But the accompanists didn’t face a hard task given the quality of Joel’s singing that has actually improved over the years in terms of expression and an inherent curiosity to burrow deeper into his compositions.
Listen as Joel tweaks his phrasing or puts new emphasis on a particular word to give his oldies sturdier or intriguing new expression. “She didn’t tell me there were rocks under the waves,” he sings on All for Leyna, as he bites harder on “rocks” to amplify their threat. The final “for the longest time” line on that tune plunged from tenor to previously untapped baritone to add depth. His musicians, perhaps his best group since his equally smooth ’70s band, also proved dexterous and didn’t shy from improvisation. The River of Dreams, bland on record, gains detail in concert with a livelier arrangement and a cute seque into When the Saints Go Marching In. The jazzy Zanzibar, the sole 52nd Street selection, soared on Joel’s punchy piano fills and Carl Fischer’s screaming trumpet solo. This deft musicianship should satisfy demanding jazz buffs.
Only We Didn’t Start the Fire, a dated history lesson through 1989 Joel performed late in the set, seemed superfluous. That one could easily be ditched in favor of any number of overlooked selections from the vast catalog. Might we suggest the seldom-aired beauty Rosalinda's Eyes and its affectionate longing for “Cuban skies in Rosalinda’s eyes” for the hometown crowd Saturday?
Joel also deserves credit for challenging his audience by including deep album cuts like Sleeping With the Television On amid must-plays like Piano Man, New York State of Mind and the opening Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway). He took an amusing jab at one-time co-headlining touring mate Elton John by needling the English superstar for never altering his setlists. Fans came to hear Joel sing them a memory, as they held smart phones aloft to film YouTube keepsakes, but the singer’s adventurous spirit had everyone feeling alright.
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Billy Joel performs at the BB&T Center on January 7, 2014 in Sunrise. Photo: Eliot J. Schechter