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.