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Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden: Midtown guy lets songs do talking

Billy Joel performs at his second artist-in-residence concert

Billy Joel performs at his second artist-in-residence concert on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Credit: Chad Batka

Billy Joel plans to play monthly shows at Madison Square Garden for as long as the public is interested. Follow his first year of this groundbreaking music-industry experiment by looking at his shows through a variety of viewpoints -- from critics, musicians, celebrities and fans. First up is Newsday theater critic Linda Winer. Check back every month in 2014 to see how Joel's concert series is evolving.

For what feels like forever, Billy Joel has been on my short list of songwriters who, in my dream world, would have been making great musical theater. These are the pop artists with the narrative gift, the few who can tell a whole story in a brief song and tell those personal yet universal stories in the voices of people who could be us. In other words, if these pop stars hadn't wanted to grow up to be Bo Diddley -- or, in Joel's case, The Beatles -- they might have been the next Richard Rodgers.

So here is Joel, 64, making a different kind of show-biz history as the first to get a monthly gig at Madison Square Garden -- a "fourth franchise," they're calling him, to join the Knicks, the Rangers and the Liberty. And in the terrific two-hour, greatest-hits show I saw Monday night (the second in his so-called residency), Joel and a powerful brass-driven band did manage to make the massive arena feel almost as friendly as a club where regulars go to catch a favorite act.

What makes Joel's music so theatrical, however, is not the colored lights or the video screens or even the turntable that gives everyone a chance to see the piano and its piano man. Joel, dressed for business in a dark suit and a spotted tie, doesn't make an entrance in feathers from the ceiling or, as I once saw on a very young Elton John, wear a Donald Duck night light on his fly.

The drama, you see, is in the songs. Choreographer Twyla Tharp realized that so brilliantly in her wordless 2002 Broadway dance musical, "Movin' Out," which arranged them into a story about the devastation of Vietnam on a bunch of working-class Long Island kids.

As performed at the Garden, Joel's joyful songs always came with an old-soul melancholy. As early as 1971's "Everybody Loves You Now," he was warning "ev'rybody loves you now, (but) loneliness will get to you somehow." What he calls his happy 1986 "prom song," "This Is the Time," almost nags with anxiety.

The monthlies are sold out through August. He is at home now at the Garden. Broadway isn't so far away.

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