November 6, 2015
Billy Joel came to Houston Friday night a New Yorker, but did his best to leave an honorary Texan. The Piano Man’s Toyota Center set, which clocked in at two and a half hours, was dotted with songs by Texas musicians he admires. Whether he was singing from the Lone Star State songbook or his own catalog, built from his 50 years in music, Joel sounded magnificent.
For its part, Houston did a pretty solid impersonation of midtown Manhattan the few hours ahead of show time. The streets were teeming with Joel fans. There were hour-long waits for tables at House of Blues and the Pappasito’s at Hilton Americas; nor a spare seat at MKT Bar, either. We finally settled on the least likely place to hear a Billy Joel tune ahead of the show — Dirt Bar. While we finished our pre-game drinks, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” emerged from Dirt’s sound system, right in there with Motorhead and Godsmack. Leaving, we sang a few of the “Brenda and Eddie” bars with some geeked-out showgoers on the sidewalk.
At half-past eight, Joel opened the show with “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” on a sparse, gray stage, with the piano front and center. As he moved into “My Life,” which began with him plunking out “Deep In the Heart of Texas,” he and the piano turned on a rotating segment of the stage. He joked that this was the extent of the bells and whistles he brought along, all the while perched beneath a gargantuan video display reminiscent of the one favored by that wizard in Oz.
He even ventured towards a yellow brick road by reminding us all that his last trip to Houston had been with “that other guy,” and sang the opening to Elton John’s “Your Song.” When he got to the line that goes, “Don’t have much money...” he curtailed the song by saying, “Bullshit, you don’t have much money.”
“A lot of good musicians come out of Texas,” he said, going into Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” It was the first of several such homages, some delivered as snippets (Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” “Tush” by ZZ Top) and others in full (Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music”).
Of course, the crowd was voracious for these moments; there's no better ego stroke than having a visitor come to your home and comment on how spectacular it is. But the covers never felt like pandering to the crowd. For one, that’s the stuff of young, inexperienced acts, not Rock and Roll Hall of Famers with a half-century in the industry. But, also, Joel and the band seemed to enjoy playing the covers. Consider how many times they’ve played the same songs from one show to the next, the songs they’re expected to perform, and every chance to divert probably seems appealing. Illustrating the point — and reminding us of his love for baseball — Joel offered a “fielder’s choice.” By applause, we got to select either “This Is the Time” from The Bridge or “Vienna” from The Stranger. The choice was overwhelmingly the latter, which suited Joel and his polished band just fine.
Last week, we longtime fans got a chance to reflect on how seeing Joel would be like welcoming back an old friend, and he chatted casually with us at the show like we were besties. He went through some scripted patter, too. He shared the many historical inaccuracies of “Ballad of Billy the Kid,” which I personally have never stopped singing long enough to contemplate.
But we didn’t come to hear him talk. His voice sounded strong from beginning to end and he stretched it out for us on songs like “New York State of Mind.” The truly avid Joel fans were treated to a couple of deep cuts, one of which was “No Man’s Land” from River of Dreams, famously the last album of original pop songwriting Joel produced. “Zanzibar,” from 52nd Street, was fun and allowed Joel to jazz-riff a bit.
For the most part, Joel was content visiting the past, but he did offer some signs he knows it’s 2015. He dedicated “The Entertainer” to Donald Trump, without further commentary. That’s about as political as Joel seems to get. He also looked up at Toyota Center’s midcourt video screens and examined himself, as if looking into a mirror.
“I look just like my dad now. I never wanted to look like him,” he lamented and sighed, Yeah, I been around for a while.”
Personal Bias: I’m such a fanboy, it’s sad. I’m happy Joel sounded so good. I was prepared to shelve the objectivity had he sounded incapable. Thankfully, you’re not sitting there now reading a big mess of lies about how excellent he was. He sounded as good as any of the many times I’ve heard him live going back to 1982.
The Crowd: Gen-Xers. Also, one fella who told us that he was from Long Island and had sung in some bar with Joel once. Sure you did, pal. Plus, lots of attractive females. The fella manning the camera for audience shots was happily selecting gorgeous women during “She’s Always a Woman” and cute girls during “Uptown Girl.”
Overheard In the Crowd: “Doo dumm doo dumm dumm dumm dumm,” hummed to the “Oh oh oh” opening of “Uptown Girl” by a guy standing at the next urinal, who was not confident enough to sing the “Oh oh’s.”
** “He doesn’t move around as much as he used to, but he still sounds great" —a woman assessing Joel’s performance as she exited the show.
** “This escalator wasn’t meant to hold so many lard-asses" — a woman snarking about a stalled Toyota Center escalator and many of Billy Joel’s fans.
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Random Notebook Dump: Like most of his fans, I stopped holding out hope for newly written Joel material at least a decade ago; but, why doesn’t he do a song of blues covers, at least? Listening to him wax soulfully on the keys for “New York State of Mind” or growl out “Crossroads” makes me wonder what Joel would do with a Howlin’ Wolf song or some Professor Longhair. And, if he’s still in a Texas state of mind, he could always mix in a little Lightnin’ Hopkins for us.
Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)
Boys of Summer (Don Henley cover)
Dance To the Music (Sly & the Family Stone cover)
Ballad of Billy the Kid
Rock Around the Clock (Bill Haley & His Comets cover)
Pretty Woman (Roy Orbsion cover)
New York State of Mind
No Man’s Land
Keepin’ The Faith
Piece of My Heart (Janis Joplin cover)
She’s Always a Woman
Don’t Ask Me Why
Highway To Hell (AC/DC cover)
We Didn’t Start the Fire
River of Dreams/Tush (ZZ Top cover)
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right
Crossroads (Robert Johnson/Cream cover)
Only the Good Die Young