JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Billy Joel performed Saturday night on a rotating platform at the Blaisdell Arena. He plays a second show at 7 tonight at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $75 to $95; call (808) 242-2787 or visit www.mauiarts.org
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Billy Joel forges strong connection
YOU THINK you know someone ... The Billy Joel concert at the Blaisdell Arena shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was -- just a little. After all, we've been listening to Joel for decades.
But it's been something like a decade since Billy Joel last toured, and even longer since he's written or performed pop music, so his concert promised to be something of a mystery. We also know way too much about his rehab stints and car accidents and ex-wives and all that baggage that gives a guy the blues. What is the Piano Man up to these days? No clue what to expect.
It turned out to be one of the best concerts of 2006. Not just because Joel is a ferociously talented songwriter -- his Brill Building melodies and clever, empathetic lyrics are among the most unerringly memorable this side of Carole King -- or because he's a brilliant musician -- his piano playing leans toward rhythmic chording, and his voice is not only soulful, it has gained seasoning and character since he entered middle age -- but because, frankly, Joel has an extraordinary rapport with his audiences.
He seems thrilled to be on stage and appears to love every second of it, and it showed here on Saturday. Joel made a deliberate effort to make eye contact with as many audience members as possible, even busily shaking hands with the fans. Joel's piano was mounted on a rotating platform so that he could play to all points of the compass. It also had an air-conditioning unit attached, blowing cold air at Joel. Sweet ride!
THERE appeared to be no average Billy Joel fan. The audience ranged from kids to seniors, and most seemed capable of singing along with every lyric, even the obscure nuggets scattered throughout the set list. A couple of times, Joel stopped singing entirely and let the audience take over.
Most of the songs you've heard before -- that is, if you've ever owned a radio. "Angry Young Man," "My Life," "The Entertainer," "New York State of Mind," "Zanzibar," "Allentown," "Just the Way You Are," "Movin' Out," "An Innocent Man," "Keeping the Faith," "Always a Woman to Me," "I Go to Extremes," "River of Dreams," "We Didn't Start the Fire," "Big Shot," "It's Still Rock n Roll to Me," "You May be Right," "Only the Good Die Young," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and -- whew! After two hours! -- the truly great song about barroom empathy, "Piano Man," which could have been Joel's albatross for these many years. He makes it great still, not by trying to reinvent it, but by making it a moment of bonding with the audience.
The evening also could be thought of as Pop Music 101. At least he managed to ditch "Uptown Girl" and "Captain Jack."
The focus was on the music, and other than first-rate sound and a few snappy lighting effects, there was no stage choreography, except for some frankly scary mike-stand gymnastics by Joel, once he managed to get off the piano stool. There was a bit of goofing around, such as when guitar player Tommy Byrnes trapped Joel into vamping on Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" -- and the band hilariously flew to pieces when they muffed a chorus break. "You've witnessed an authentic rock 'n' roll screwup!" chortled Joel.
FIRST-RATE BAND, too, and well-used, particularly when they became the Three Tenors. Tenor saxes, that is. They made a honking brass section, and that's critical to Joel's East Coast pop sensibilities. His songs are freight trains of production, powerful and packed to the gills, and certainly sound best live instead of on a tinny car radio. Inspiring, even. There were no solo piano man moments -- it was full orchestration all the way, every song, but restrained enough to not sound repetitive. The pacing was excellent.
Certainly the biggest surprise was when Joel donned a guitar and invited a roadie named Chainsaw to sing "Highway to Hell" -- and they did AC/DC proud. It was some serious fun.
These days, Billy Joel looks like a host on "Car Talk," not a pretty pop star. He makes constant self-deprecating fun of himself and acts the goof -- he introduced himself as "Billy Joel's father" as he rubbed his balding head -- and he occasionally staggers around the stage like a prize fighter. He's 58, and has some marriages, drinking problems and car accidents behind him. On the other hand, he's probably in the best voice of his career, now that it has gained soul and character and texture.
But there was something heroic, scrappy and frankly magical about the way he entered a room with thousands of people looking on, and made each one of them a pal. Joel hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a regular guy, battered but not beaten.