Billy Joel, who has been named to receive the Library...

Billy Joel, who has been named to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, is also one of the performers set to receive ASCAP's first Centennial Award on Nov. 17, 2014. Credit: ASCAP

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 singer-composer-multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedman, who currently plays keyboards in his band Stiletto and in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway. The Dix Hills native played “The Piano Man” for the national tours of Joel and Twyla Tharp’s musical “Movin’ Out.” Check back every month in 2014 to see how Joel's concert series is evolving.

I am blessed to have a unique perspective on just how difficult it is to be Billy Joel. As “The Piano Man” for the touring companies of his Broadway musical, “Movin’ Out,” I had to sing and play 24 of his songs, every other night, for three years. I was 36 when I first got the job, at my musical peak. Yet after every show, my throat felt like sandpaper -- I sounded more like Froggy from "The Little Rascals" than a normal human being. And my hands? Numb for hours, then aching and heavy as bricks for hours more.

Billy Joel is now closer to 70 than 60. He's been through the wringer, physically and otherwise. Most rockers his age are happily retired and counting their mailbox money — or still trying to relive the glory of days past, while unaware (or perhaps far too aware) that they are a shell of their former selves.  Seeing your heroes as fading or mortal or irrelevant is depressing. At this point in Billy's life, knowing what it takes to put on a concert of this magnitude, it might seem foolish to believe that he could approach anywhere near the high levels of performance fans were treated to in his “prime.”

I am happy to say that Joel not only defies Father Time, he has apparently beaten him to a pulp, and told him to leave town and never return. If you closed your eyes and listened to Billy Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, he sounded like he was in his mid-thirties. His voice was crisp and pristine on the ballads, meaty and full of genuine growl on the rockers. He made virtually no concession to age, doing every song in or near its original key (which even some of today's hottest and youngest acts can't do). His piano playing was better than ever, if that is even possible.

And I think Billy knew exactly how great he sounded. His rapport with the crowd was easy, confident and playful. He was doing dead-on foreign accents, impersonating Marlon Brando's Don Corleone while playing a tarantella, performing his most beautiful love songs with genuine emotion, and then cracking jokes about his divorces right afterward. He had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, and deservedly so.

One of the best aspects of The Garden residency is that Billy has been pulling out some rarities and album cuts and putting them back into his set rotation (or, in some cases, playing them for the first time). Wednesday night, the MSG faithful were treated to “Just The Way You Are,” which Billy confessed to not having played live, basically, since the album came out. It was gorgeous, of course, punctuated by sax player Mark Rivera's flawless riffs. But then Billy added to the experience with an anecdote- that the sheet music for this song is full of mistakes, and that he has often approached pianists in bars or restaurants to tell them they're playing the song incorrectly. (Many times to a response of “Who the hell are you?") Billy taking the time to personalize his masterworks this way makes his Garden residency that much more special and effective.

The set list was obviously full of his greatest hits. He opened with his anthemic “Miami, 2017," blasted into “Pressure,” then veered into the jazz-infused “Zanzibar.” Billy's trumpet player Carl Fischer proved that a trumpet does not actually have a highest note. His solos, which evoked and augmented those of Freddie Hubbard, were truly astonishing.

If you were a fan of “The Stranger” album, you were particularly in luck this evening, as Billy performed more than half the album, including the title track, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Movin' Out.” There was also a “fielder's choice” for the crowd, between “Downeaster Alexa” and “All For Leyna.” I was disappointed at first when “Alexa” won the vote (by a large margin, by the way). But that disappointment faded fast when Tommy Byrnes, Billy's longtime guitarist, somehow managed to conjure a fishing boat being buffeted by a hurricane using only his guitar. 

In one poignant moment, Billy told the audience that rock legend Joe Cocker is in failing health, and dedicated a rousing rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends” to Cocker, complete with Billy's uncanny impersonation. Percussionist Crystal Taliefero (who is Billy's go-to utility musician, able to play any instrument and sing like a diva), also toured with Cocker, and her featured backing vocals were soaring and passionate. And then, there was the encore -- five more of Billy's most beloved songs. After more than two hours of nonstop energy expenditure, when you'd think his tank would be empty, Billy stepped back onto the stage and ignited like a supernova. “Big Shot” was especially thunderous, with Billy often raising his vocal line by an octave, just because he could.

It also needs to be said that Billy's band is truly fantastic. They are all virtuosos, but without the ego that typically accompanies such skill. They know when to be absolutely true to the source material, and also when they can add their own personality and artistry to synergistic effect. And they never step on their boss' toes. Chuck Burgi on drums has evolved and matured the drum parts, and made them entirely his own -- yet without losing one iota of the ferocity and intensity of the original recordings. Bassist Andy Cichon rarely if ever deviated from his predecessor's parts, to great effect -- he gave Billy the most solid and reliable backbone he could possibly need. Mike DelGuidice's harmonies were spot-on, phrased in perfect synch to Billy's leads, almost like a psychic connection. And enough cannot be said about David Rosenthal, keyboardist and musical director, who, in addition to single-handedly simulating an entire orchestra, has made the band as tight as a drum, while simultaneously giving everyone room to breathe. Billy was clearly feeding off their energy and joy all night long, and vice versa. 

But the real key to why the sold-out crowd of 20,000 people was both enthralled and enraptured by what they saw and heard rests squarely with Billy's songs. No amount of technical skill matters if the songs aren't worthy. Much of what passes for music today might as well be written by computers (and probably is). Three or four chords, barely a melody to speak of, lyrics that are unintelligible or childish or obscene -- all gloss and no substance. Billy Joel's music endures because each of his songs is unique. Every melody is memorable and distinct. There are chord changes and bridges and beats that make your brain work to keep up. His lyrics take you places, describe the people you know, put into words the feelings that are locked away in your heart and mind. His music still matters, regardless of your age. There were 7-year-olds dancing in the aisles, right alongside the baby boomers. And the ability to generate that kind of universal and timeless love and appreciation is what makes Billy Joel a Hall of Famer.

When I was 7 years old, growing up in Long Island, I wanted to be Billy Joel. And when I get to 65, I'm certain I'll feel the same.

SET LIST: Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) / Pressure / Zanzibar / Just the Way You Are / The Entertainer / The Stranger / New York State of Mind / Tarantella (snippet) / Movin' Out / The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ / Allentown / My Life / She's Always a Woman / Don't Ask Me Why / Highway to Hell / We Didn't Start the Fire / River of Dreams / A Hard Day's Night / With A Little Help From My Friends (Joe Cocker version) / Scenes From an Italian Restaurant / Piano Man // ENCORES: Hey, Joe (snippet) / Uptown Girl / It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me/ Big Shot / You May Be Right / Only The Good Die Young

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