Billy Joel plans to play monthly shows at Madison Square Garden for as long as the public is interested. We have followed 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. For the final installment, it’s Newsday pop music writer Glenn Gamboa, who has seen Joel perform seven times in the past year.
Only Billy Joel would think about celebrating a history-making moment and his name being raised to the rafters of Madison Square Garden with a song about fleeting music business success and artistic paranoia.
Of course, that’s exactly what he did Friday night as he broke his own record for the longest run of consecutive sold-out shows with the 13th concert in his current residency. (He will continue to break this record, as he currently has shows at The Garden lined up through October with no end in sight.)
Following a short award presentation by Q104’s Jim Kerr — who told the crowd, “You are participating in a historic, major musical event” — a new banner bearing Joel’s name, the number 13 and the title of “Longest Run of a Single Artist” was hoisted to the rafters.
Joel and his band then launched into “The Entertainer,” with the famous line “I won’t be here in another year, if I don’t stay on the charts” and a litany of still-accurate pitfalls in the music business.
“I haven’t been on the charts for twenty-something years,” Joel told the crowd, as he thanked them for still packing his concerts. “I’m a very lucky man. This doesn’t happen to a lot of people.”
In fact, it hasn’t ever happened to anyone else. Joel’s residency at The Garden is the first by an artist in an arena and its over-the-top success is unprecedented.
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Though he hasn’t released a pop music album since 1993, Joel’s residency at The Garden was the top-grossing concert series in America last year, pulling in more than $20 million, according to Billboard. His residency was the fourth-biggest draw in the world in 2014, following shows in Japan from Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, and One Direction’s run in Dublin.
The Friday concert showed why. For his residency, Joel and his band really have hit on the right balance of hits and lesser-known album cuts, as well as a good balance between storytelling and performance.
It was interesting that on his record-breaking night, Joel seemed focused on his fallibility. After a few barely noticeable changes in one song, Joel called the version “the world premiere of ‘This Is the Time’ done that way.” (Maybe he was as shocked as I was that the crowd overwhelmingly asked for that song over his classic “Summer, Highland Falls.”) Following “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” Joel launched into a list of the song’s factual errors, before ending on an adult joke and the declaration, “Gimme a break! It’s the new year!”
Perhaps Joel was also trying to cope with seeming a little under the weather. His voice, especially toward the end of the two-hour-plus show, was not as strong as it has been. Joel even ceded the higher parts of “River of Dreams” to guitarist Mike DelGuidice, though Joel still knocked out a convincing Elvis Presley croon as he inserted “Don’t Be Cruel” into the middle of the song.
Part of Joel’s power is that he has so many ways to entertain a crowd. His voice was lovely in the simple version of the ballad “And So It Goes” and rocking during “Sometimes a Fantasy.” He led the crowd in sing-alongs for the sweet “She’s Always a Woman” and, obviously, “Piano Man.” And he threw a little extra into his solos during “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and his choreography during “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me.”
His always-impressive band threw in a little extra, too, offering their leader some breaks as Tommy Byrnes provided a monster guitar solo in “Big Shot,” while Mark Rivera’s saxophone solo helped power “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me.” Carl Fischer’s soaring trumpet solo in “Zanzibar” was one of the night’s highlights.
Through it all, Joel seemed to be savoring the moment. “I have a great job,” he told the crowd. “This is a great job.”
And as the more than 200,000 folks who have experienced Joel’s residency at The Garden can attest, it’s a job well done.
SETLIST: Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) / Pressure / The Entertainer / This Is the Time / Zanzibar / Ballad of Billy the Kid / New York State of Mind / Blonde Over Blue / Movin’ Out / And So It Goes / Allentown / My Life / Sometimes a Fantasy / She’s Always a Woman / Don’t Ask Me Why / River of Dreams / Scenes from an Italian Restaurant / Piano Man // ENCORES: It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me / Big Shot / You May Be Right /Only the Good Die Young