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Billy Joel spectacular at The Garden: Nine Days' John Hampson's review

June 21, 2014: Billy Joel performs as part

June 21, 2014: Billy Joel performs as part of his artist's residency at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Credit: Yana Paskova

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. This month, it’s St. James singer-songwriter John Hampson, solo artist and singer/guitarist from Nine Days, which plays The Paramount on Sept. 20. Check back every month in 2014 to see how Joel's concert series is evolving.

One of the clearest childhood memories I have is of sitting on the hot vinyl seats in the back of my mom's giant Ford LTD,  windows down, driving to the beach, and singing along to Billy Joel's “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.”

That scene was replayed over and over again, every trip to the beach, all summer long. We weren't sure what the “new sound funny” was or what the heck “Beau Brummel baby” meant. But we knew pop perfection when we heard it. So, we sang along.

Thirty-four years later, I’m at Madison Square Garden singing along to that song – and many others – Thursday night with approximately 19,999 other Billy Joel fans. And this time, I even know what all the lyrics mean.

Nostalgia can be tricky for an artist, but Billy Joel brought us all back with a wink and a nod, while living in each song, in each moment, and making sure we all have another great memory to add to our list.

If you've been to the Garden, or know anything about it, you know it's a very, very large venue, but the show felt more like you were hanging at your favorite local bar and Billy Joel just happened to stop by and commandeer the house band.

He was funny, irreverent, and poked fun at himself often – assuring us that there was NO alcohol in his throat spray (“I know what you’re thinking!” he chided us) to laughing off what a “Nostradamus” he had been for predicting “I won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts” after playing “The Entertainer.” He introduced "The Stranger" by letting us know that it had been a while since they performed it, and if they messed it up it would just prove that it was “a real, live, authentic show.”

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Oh, it was real, and it was spectacular.

By way of an introduction for "We Didn't Start the Fire," he half-jokingly requested that if anyone knew the words that they sing along, so he could read their lips. According to Billy, if he missed “just one word" it would be "a train wreck."  He didn't, and it wasn't.

Billy Joel's Madison Square Garden residency shows are a different kind of show.

This is not a timed-down-to-the-second, computerized-light-show-driven, can't-miss-your-cue, costume-changing, lip-synching spectacle. This is an honest night’s work (fun) by a man who has put in 50 years of being one of the best ever.

From the double-shot opening of "Miami 2017" and "Pressure," to the beautiful and sublime "And So It Goes," Billy's voice was in stellar form. He nailed them all, and then some. He gave the audience a couple of opportunities to pick between two songs, as with “Glass Houses' " “Sometimes a Fantasy" and “All for Leyna." The audience picked "All for Leyna," but Billy played them both. That's just the kind of guy he is.

During his first encore song, "Uptown Girl," Billy kept motioning for the onstage cameraman to come up to the front of the stage. Billy pointed into the audience, the cameraman aimed his lens where Billy was pointing, and Christie Brinkley's smiling face filled the video screen above the stage. She was dancing and singing along, a fan like the rest of us. (In case you are wondering, she looked great.)

Billy slammed through four more songs for his encore, running about 15 minutes over the 11 p.m. Garden curfew. I doubt they fined him. He was too good, and the Garden crew are probably all fans, too.

I really thought I would write about how Billy Joel's music had an impact on me as a writer and singer, but throughout the entire show I just felt like a fan, and I loved it.

I was fortunate enough to perform at Madison Square Garden once – just once – in my life. My band, Nine Days, performed two songs at the 2000 Jingle Ball concert and I heard a full house singing back one of my own songs to me, “Absolutely (Story of a Girl).” It was amazing. I took that moment in at the time and I couldn't help but think of it again while watching Billy Joel perform. There is a direct connection between my childhood, his music, and any success I was fortunate enough to have. How many times has Billy Joel played here? Too many to count. The man is an icon.

He brought back so many great memories and made them live again. Everyone in that arena was celebrating those songs as part of the soundtrack of their lives, and we were all having a great time. I think what we all want to say to Billy is "we love you," and "thank you."

So, Billy, we love you. Thank you.

SETLIST: Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) / Pressure / The Entertainer / Vienna / Downeaster ‘Alexa’ / The Stranger / New York State of Mind / Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) / All for Leyna / Sometimes a Fantasy / And So It Goes / Allentown / My Life / She’s Always a Woman / Don’t Ask Me Why / We Didn’t Start the Fire / Highway to Hell (with Jon Stevens) / River of Dreams / Scenes From an Italian Restaurant / Piano Man // ENCORE: Uptown Girl / It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me / Big Shot / You May Be Right / Only the Good Die Young

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