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Billy Joel Doles Out the Hits for Monthly Madison Square Garden Residency: Concert Review

Billy Joel Madison Square Garden - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

The Bottom Line

Who needs a Vegas residency when you can rock one in your own hometown?

Venue

Madison Square Garden
New York City
(Monday, Feb. 3)

The Piano Man delivers a typically outstanding concert as part of his monthly series at Manhattan's fabled arena.

Why schlep out to the Statue of Liberty or wait in endless lines to reach the top of the Empire State Building when one of the greatest new tourist attractions in New York City is readily available for the mere price of a ticket? It’s Billy Joel, Long Island’s venerated native son who, with his indefinite monthly concerts at Madison Square Garden, has immediately established himself as a new franchise and institution.

Performing on Monday night in the second of a series of sold-out shows, stretching through August and with no end in sight, Joel demonstrated that musical residencies need no longer be confined to Vegas. His two-hour set, cannily mixing crowd favorites, deep album cuts and -- in an affectionate nod to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, several Fab Four covers -- revealed the entertainer to be having as good a time as the rapturous crowd.

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Joel is celebrating a 50th anniversary himself -- of his years as a professional entertainer. Ruefully examining his aged face displayed on the giant video screens, he lamented that he is now 64 years old, prompting, what else, a spirited rendition of the Beatles’ "When I’m Sixty Four." He later performed the first stanza of their "The Night Before," as well as a spirited "A Hard Day’s Night" interpolated into "River of Dreams."

He was in playful mode throughout, making jokes about such things as the throat spray he constantly ingested; the previous night’s Super Bowl ("Good weather, shitty game") and the snowstorm that blanketed the New York area early in the day, which seemingly prevented no one from getting to the arena. The latter was accompanied by a spirited, boogie-woogie piano version of "Let It Snow."

It’s obvious that Joel seems intent on varying the set list for the monthly shows, including plenty of die-hard hits for casual fans while thrilling the loyal ones, and obviously himself, with, in this case, such relatively lesser-performed numbers like "Everybody Loves You Now" (from his 1971 debut album Cold Spring Harbor), "Vienna," "And So It Goes," "A Room of Our Own" and "Captain Jack."

"I haven’t done that one in a dog’s age," he commented after the latter. "That’ a sick song … who wrote that?"

Performing with his crack eight-piece band that included such stalwarts as Mark Rivera (delivering a gorgeous sax solo on "New York State of Mind"), Joel was in strong voice throughout, nailing every note with a precision that belied his years.

He carefully introduced each of the lesser-known songs, adding the year and album from which they hailed. Of "This Is the Time," he said, "That one has become like a prom song," before pointing out that he never attended his own prom since he never graduated. He even occasionally needed some prompting from the band, asking "What’s the tempo on that?" before launching into "A Room of Our Own."

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The crowd went nuts, as to be expected, for such classics as the opening "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," the now anthemic "New York State of Mind," and perhaps the most popular song from his immense repertoire, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." And they dutifully fulfilled their part by lustily singing along to "Piano Man."

The hit-laden encore featured Joel finally getting up from behind his revolving baby grand piano, playfully dancing around with his mic stand for a propulsive "It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me."

He also offered words of advice for those trying to get home on the still treacherous roads. "Don’t drink and drive," he warned. "Do what I do. Drink and have a chauffeured limousine."

The well-received opening act was another piano man, albeit of a much younger,-up-and-coming variety. It was 22-year-old Tom Odell, whose debut album Long Way Down entered the top of the U.K. music charts before being released domestically last fall. Possessed of a deep, soulful voice and the sort of photogenic good looks that seem tailor-made for music videos, the charismatic performer delivered a strong half-hour set mostly featuring such aching love songs as "Grow Old With Me" and "Another Love," featuring influences ranging from the young Elton John to Coldplay. While the material occasionally bordered on repetitiveness, the sensitive lyrics and passionate delivery nonetheless made a strong impression.

Set list:

Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Pressure
This Is the Time
When I’m Sixty-Four
Everybody Loves You Now
Vienna
Zanzibar
And So It Goes
Allentown
A Room of Our Own
The Night Before 
The Downeaster 'Alexa'
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
New York State of Mind
She’s Always a Woman
Captain Jack
River of Dreams/A Hard Day’s Night
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

Encore:

Big Shot
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Only the Good Die Young