by Julian Spivey
Billy Joel’s most popular hit “Piano Man” includes the chorus: “sing us a song you’re the piano man/sing us a song tonight/well, we’re all in the mood for a melody/and you’ve got us feeling alright.”
Joel returned to Memphis, a place where his career kind of took off thanks to a 1974 show that was broadcast live on a local radio station, on Friday, March 25 at the city’s FedEx Forum and had the largest audience in the arena’s history feeling alright for more than two hours.
Joel, my all-time favorite of the piano rockers, mixed more than a dozen hits with nicely chosen deep cuts and covers throughout the night to the sold-out crowd’s delight.
He opened up the show with his 1979 hit “Big Shot,” which really got the crowd pumped for the rest of the terrific show. He followed that up with a couple of more fan favorites in “My Life” and “The Entertainer,” which he humorously dedicated to Republican Presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
One of the interesting aspects of Joel’s show and something he’s been doing on tour for a little while is a couple of times throughout the night he actually allows the audience to choose a song in his setlist by giving them a choice of two songs. The first choice was “The Longest Time” or “An Innocent Man” – the crowd easily chose “The Longest Time” which included a warmup intro of The Tokens’ 1961 classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The second choice came relatively soon after with Joel asking the audience if they’d rather hear “Summer, Highland Falls” or “Vienna.” The crowd chose “Vienna,” which Joel performed beautifully, but I would’ve preferred “Summer, Highland Falls.”
Joel sprinkled some deep cuts throughout his set, some of which chosen to feature his band’s horn section because he was in Memphis, where horns played such a big role on Stax Records hits of the ‘60s. For this reason, he specifically chose “Big Man on Mulberry Street.” One non-hit that I particularly enjoyed and have always wanted to see Joel perform live was “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway), which for my money is one of his finest pieces. He also performed “All About Soul” and “Sometimes A Fantasy.” These non-hits were all performed greatly, but sometimes lost the crowd a bit.
But, the crowd would not be lost for long with hit-after-hit performed briskly with the 66-year old rock hall of famer performing with the energy of someone much younger. Joel can almost give the also 66-year old Bruce Springsteen a run for his money as far as energy throughout a concert goes and nobody is more legendary for their onstage energy than Springsteen.
Among “the essential” Joel classics that were performed throughout the evening were “Don’t Ask Me Why,” “New York State of Mind,” “She’s Always a Woman,” a crowd-pleasing “Allentown” and, one of my personal favorites, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”
The covers chosen by Joel for the Memphis crowd were spot on and all had a Memphis flavor to them from Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” after previously teasing Elvis songs by doing snippets of “Suspicious Minds” (as an Elvis impersonation) and “Don’t Be Cruel.” He also covered Booker T. & the MGs classic instrumental “Green Onions,” recorded just about a block from the venue at Stax Records in 1962. But, my favorite cover was how Joel perfectly fit an entire version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” inside of his own hit “River of Dreams.” I’ve seen a lot of terrific covers over the many concerts I’ve seen throughout the years, but this was probably the best.
Other favorites from Joel’s set included raucous performances of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Keeping the Faith,” which excited me greatly as I didn’t believe it to be a song he’d play.
Joel ended his set with the obvious choice of “Piano Man,” which earlier in the week had been inducted into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. It was a true sing-along moment for everybody in the audience.
Joel briefly left the stage, but would soon follow with what was certainly one of the best encores I’ve ever seen in concert. Joel started the encore by walking to the stage with a bright red guitar, breaking free of the piano he’s synonymous with and had sat behind the entire show. He entered into another crowd-favorite in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which shockingly I remembered every last word of, before blasting through “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right” with a little bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” thrown in at the end for good measure.
My favorite Billy Joel song has always been “Only the Good Die Young,” even though I know most Joel fans would pinpoint “Piano Man” as their favorites. I love “Piano Man” and honestly the two songs are damn close to a tie as my favorite, but something about the hardcore rock and roll attitude of “Only the Good Die Young,” one of my all-time favorite jam along to the radio songs, just gets me going. Joel finished with this classic and damn if by the end of the song, encore and concert if I didn’t feel like this one probably a top five all-time show for me as a music lover and avid concertgoer.
Joel really is a music icon, but I was somewhat surprised to see the amount of younger people mixed into an audience for a musician who’s nearing 70 years old and 50 years in the music business. I’ve seen a lot of older artists over the years, as someone who adores music of past generations, and have never seen such a wide disparity in ages. This speaks volumes about not only Joel’s popularity, but importance to music and it wasn’t all that long ago when Joel was actually deemed uncool by some – particularly those of Gen X. It was obvious from Friday night’s show that he’s possibly cooler now than he’s ever been.
by Julian Spivey
I’ve had a bad week. And, I thought the week was only going to get worse when that alarm rang at 7:20 a.m. Thursday morning for an 8 a.m. work shift (I’m the furthest thing from a morning person). But, once the key went into the ignition of my car and my wrist twisted that Pontiac on Bruce Springsteen’s The River was switching to “Hungry Heart” and through tired eyes and a sore body, from a terrible night’s sleep, I screamed – not sang, but screamed – every word. Once that ended I screamed every word to “Out in the Streets,” as well. I didn’t feel all that bad when I got to work. Music can do that to a person’s soul.
Something that I’ve realized, but not really been able to comprehend, over the last few years (maybe even going back an entire decade), is I feel differently about music than most people. The music I love is truly one of the most important things in my life, like even more important than certain family members. If you put a gun to the head of certain cousins I haven’t seen in God knows when and threatened to incinerate every copy of Springsteen’s Born to Run and told me I could only save just one I wouldn’t think twice before giving the go ahead to execute the cousin. It might make any future family reunions awkward, but at least I’d have something that I truly loved (as would millions of others). That’s the bond I have with my music. People who flat-out claim to not like music (they exist, I’ve seen a few) make my head almost explode. I don’t believe those people are capable of feeling anything, because if there isn’t at least one artist who makes you love their songs in this world you’re probably a sociopath, but then again I’m the one willing to sacrifice family for “Backstreets,” “Jungleland” and "Thunder Road."
And, it’s not really just music – but not connecting with lyrics in any way. I guess it’s understandable when much of the popular music over the last couple or three decades has relied more on the sound, rather than what these artists are saying (and popular songwriters these days don’t bother writing anything deep), but I believe it really takes connecting with lyrics to connect emotionally to a song and with the artists of your favorite songs. My favorite artists aren’t just famous millionaires who have the best jobs in the world, but really are among my best friends (who I’ve just never met) – because they have made me connect emotionally with what they’ve recorded more so than many people have face-to-face with me in my lifetime.
That’s partially why these next 45 days are so exciting for me. I’ve seen some great shows. I’ve seen all-time favorites. I’ve seen the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July festival and The Eagles second-to-last show before Glenn Frey’s untimely death. This isn’t to brag, but to show how what’s coming up is truly unbelievable to me as the biggest music lover I’ve ever known. And, it’s something I feel I need at the moment – though it’s also something I’m always going to need.
In a span of 45 days, starting tonight, I will be seeing four Rock and Roll Hall of Famers in four different cities in three different states. Those artists are Billy Joel (Memphis), Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (Oklahoma City), Paul McCartney (Little Rock) and Paul Simon (Tulsa). If you were going to make a Mount Rushmore of music legends that would be one that might be pretty hard to beat – and I have tickets to see all four in less than a month and a half span. I don’t get giddy and I’m giddy.
These are all artists who’ve changed my life in certain ways. Artists I can listen to and feel every word they’re saying because I’ve lived and am living the emotions in their songs. Springsteen is my all-time favorite artist and the only one of these four living legends I’ve previously seen. His music makes me want to run away. I want to be the man in “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run” who just grabs his girl, jumps in his car and drives away to a better life. I might have the girl, but the rest of it I’ll just have to live vicariously through Springsteen’s words. That’s why this music and these concerts are so damn important to me, they truly keep me going. These shows are my ‘Promised Land’ or my ‘Graceland.’ It saves me a little bit seeing my heroes – my friends – performing my favorite songs to me, as they’ve saved me time and time again on CD and vinyl and radio. I know that experience firsthand from seeing Springsteen in Kansas City in 2012. He’s speaks to a bunch of us all at once in one arena and when you’re together in person with thousands of like-minded music lovers just losing your voice to these songs in unison with your – no our – Boss you can’t help but feel you’re experiencing some sort of spiritual moment through music. That’s why Springsteen means so much to me. That’s why his fan-base is as loyal and rabid as it is – and I feel there are going to be similar moments seeing Billy Joel belt out “Piano Man” and “Only the Good Die Young” and hearing the man who I think should be this country’s poet laureate Paul Simon do “Homeward Bound” or “The Boxer” and Paul McCartney, a freakin’ Beatle is coming to Arkansas!, perform “Hey Jude” or “Let It Be.”
These aren’t just songs. They’re time capsules that will forever make you smile, make you cry, make you feel better about your life, let you escape and just plain make you understand that other people have been where you have before. How can you not feel that? How can you not love it? Embrace it? Admire the hell of it and the artists who provide this bit of soul-saving?
You don’t have to love the same music, artists and songs that I do, but find some form of music – preferably with lyrics that speak to you – that you love. Art is the greatest thing that really separates us as humans from the animals and of all of the art-forms I believe music can most save your soul. So, let it.