WHAT IT'S ABOUT Kevin Spacey, Tony Bennett and John Mellencamp lead a star-studded tribute to Billy Joel, as he receives the nation's highest honor for popular music from the Library of Congress.
MY SAY Few artists could generate a tribute as warm and eclectic as this one for Joel without the event feeling forced or overproduced. What set the November night at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., apart was how natural it felt to see an impressively diverse cast interpret Joel's music.
Boyz II Men's a cappella rendition of "For the Longest Time" showed how Joel carried on the doo-wop tradition that influenced him as a teenager, while LeAnn Rimes' gorgeous version of "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)" could easily be part of any American Songbook performance.
Natalie Maines brought a whole lot of country to "She's Got a Way," and Bennett made "New York State of Mind" feel like a jazz standard.
However, the biggest alteration came in Mellencamp's Dylanesque reworking of "Allentown" into a folk anthem. "I bet y'all didn't know that Billy was a protest singer," Mellencamp said. "We're gonna prove it right now."
The surprise of the evening came when Spacey took over the opening of Joel's signature song, "Piano Man," playing the harmonica and handling the first two verses before it became a giant sing-along. However, the biggest surprise of the special was that the pieces taped at Joel's Long Island home that offered context to his career and artistic process were left out of the broadcast version of the show.
Of course, the performance of Joel and his band, led by guitarist Tommy Byrnes, really did speak for itself. They rocked through a four-song mini-concert, including "Vienna" and "You May Be Right," that gave fans who haven't yet made it to Joel's Madison Square Garden residency an idea of what they're missing -- right down to the dramatic arena lighting cue in "You May Be Right" when they turn out the lights in the venue to match the song lyrics.
It also offered a very good idea of why Paul McCartney told Joel, "This is an award you very much deserve."
THE GRADE B+ (MUSIC A)