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Billy Joel’s Still Rock & Roll in Detroit

My musical tastes range from Beethoven to Metallica – anything with a good melody I like. I’ve blogged before about a few concerts, but nothing compared to the variety of what I’ve had the privilege to see. One of my favorite musician-performers is Billy Joel, and last night I had the opportunity to see him in Detroit. He definitely has his groove back – after a few difficult years – this may have been the best performance of his I’ve ever seen. (And the tickets were reasonably priced – he doesn’t like to stiff his fans.) Sadly, he won’t be in the Bay Area on this tour but I’m hoping he’ll do another one soon.

Starting off with “Angry Young Man”, he got the crowd moving in the Palace at Auburn Hills while we watched his fingers and thumbs rapidly graze the piano keyboard – I’m always amazed by that one. (If you’re not a Billy Joel fan, find it on iTunes or somewhere and just listen to a few bars – you’ll be impressed.) Continuing on with some classic hits from the 70’s mixed in with a few Motown oldies like “Stand By Me” and an amusing amount of self-deprecating humor, the show took on an exciting pace rather than droning on like some older performers do. Sitting behind the piano for most of the show, he still managed to keep energy high like his buddy Elton John, who I’ve blogged about before. (They toured together twice and I’ve seen them perform together several times now – amazing shows.)

I’ve always loved Billy Joel’s attitude in his lyrics and other forms – he just has a confident sense of self and brings out meaning in musical anecdotes ranging from brief romantic interludes to world affairs. In an interview I read from the Detroit Free Press pre-show, he talked about wondering who he thought he was, spouting his opinions back in the ’70s and ’80s. My response to that is he’s a smart guy with a lot of world experience and interesting things to say. It hits home with people and he’s absolutely entitled to making his thoughts known. That’s what we admire about performers like him. I think I know every one of his songs – not only because the melodies are good, but because the lyrics strike a chord. His songs tell stories and share meaning.

Midway through the show, he turned the arena into a jazz nightclub with “Zanzibar” and “New York State of Mind” and some impressive horn solos by members of his band. Then to speed the show back up again, he brought out a roadie of 25 years, “Chain Saw”, who sang “Highway to Hell” to “atone for [Billy’s] sins.” The crowd loved it. A lot of his music has recovering Catholic themes to it like “Only the Good Die Young”.

The highlight of the show for me was something most people in the audience didn’t even notice – Billy Joel’s singing the high notes again. For about ten years, he’s had Crystal or another member of his band sing “I am” before “an innocent man” and last night, he did it perfectly himself. What to credit for his voice being back in top shape, one can only surmise, but whatever it is, I’m really happy for him. As a vocalist, I know how frustrating it is when a cold or anything else keeps me from being able to sound my best. I can tell he’s worked to get his back in shape. In addition to that, I think he added some additional backup vocals to “My Life” and several of his songs took a slightly new tempo or some additional accompaniment. Why not? When you’ve played it as much as he has, it must be fun to mix it up a little bit. Luckily he’s talented enough he can do that and the impromptu jamming on stage and keep the audience intrigued.

Finishing his encore with “Piano Man” as always, watching the crowd waving lighters and cell phones, singing together, it’s a stark contrast to the state of the world today. If we could only bottle the shared good will embodied in the reaction to that song, maybe less people would make war on each other. But as the piano man himself always reminds us when he closes his shows, “don’t take any shit from anybody.” I’ll never forget hearing his song “Leningrad” after visiting the Soviet Union myself. It made me cry and still does today. Perhaps Billy Joel doesn’t have much to say about the world now by composing new music, but if he ever chooses to do so again, I know I’ll be listening.