Joel brings spontaneity to show
Sold-out crowd happily sings along with the hits
Editor’s note: Pop music critic Hunter Hauk had never seen Billy Joel until Thursday night’s concert at the American Airlines Center. Staff writer Robert Wilonsky has seem him many times, beginning with the Dec. 3, 1982, show at Reunion Arena. This co-review comes from the perspectives of the virgin and the veteran.
Robert Wilonsky: Billy Joel wasn’t supposed to tour anymore, not after he announced his till-death-do-him-part residency at Madison Square Garden in December 2013.
But there he was Thursday night, back in Dallas for the first time since 2007, playing to a sold-out crowd aching to sing along with his hits.
“A Matter of Trust” and “Pressure” were the opening one-two punch that landed more like a soft tap. They’re ’80s arena-rock Joel, only slightly better than ’80s doowop Joel.
Four songs in, he gave the audience a choice: They could cheer for “Vienna;” “Summer, Highland Falls” or “Shameless.” He went with “Vienna” — “not a hit single,” he reminded, but a lovely highlight nonetheless. Then, another deep cut: “Zanzibar,” wistful and just shy of nostalgic.
Then came Joel’s standard: “New York State of Mind,” a perfect song — his Sinatra moment, epic and still intimate.
It wasn’t good enough for the man behind us. “Why isn’t he playing the [expletive] hits?” he asked. Hunter, did you care?
Hunter Hauk: His comment made me laugh, but I don’t agree with the sentiment that a legend is required to play every song that made him a legend.
There’s so much more to Joel than the three-volume greatest hits collection that likely helped the audience members in their 20s and 30s get acquainted with the guy. I didn’t mind the set list’s left turns, such as “Sometimes a Fantasy” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” because those were the moments when Joel seemed to have the most fun.
That’s what I wanted to see, more than a human jukebox — I wanted to see him enjoy what he’s doing after all these years.
Still, Joel played it a little too loose in some moments, as if he and his large band were still in sound check, getting their plans for the evening worked out.
Never having seen Joel live, I created this fantasy of a fussy perfectionist who gives his all to every tune. What I saw in person were wildly different sides of a singer who at times seemed a little uncomfortable in his skin.
He didn’t have to tell corny jokes or posture like Elvis to make the crowd happy. He could have cut out some of the attempts at comedy and given folks a few more singalong moments.
Robert, we both longed for a little “Honesty,” yeah?
RW: Well, maybe — though truth told, I’d have been fine with “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”
Joel certainly doesn’t seem bored playing the hits, and there’s the added bonus: Such songs as “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Piano Man” and show-closer “Only the Good Die Young” have aged remarkably well.
Strangely, I thought “Entertainer” was the night’s highlight — it’s the joke that keeps on giving. In 1974, it was about a musician one miss away from disappearing. In 2015 it’s sung by a guy who hasn’t been on the charts in decades, yet sells out every show.
But you said you felt a little disconnected from the show as we were leaving. How so?
HH: Perhaps it’s the curse of overly high expectations. I respect his approach to Thursday’s show, considering most of his peers don’t deviate from their carefully orchestrated tour set lists.
When I look back on my first time seeing Billy Joel live, I’ ll probably remember the big moments, like his surprise at the audience’s hearty participation on “She’s Always a Woman” or the similarly enthusiastic singalong during “Piano Man.”
It’s like opener Jamie Cullum said during his brief, jazz-pop-goes-the-piano opening set: “Billy Joel is the reason I’m here.”
Billy Joel certainly did not seem bored playing some of his greatest hits on Thursday at American Airlines Center.