Billy Joel Is In A Houston State Of Mind At Minute Maid Park

The Piano Man cometh.
The Piano Man cometh. Photo by Eric Sauseda
Billy Joel
Minute Maid Park
September 23, 2022

Call him the Piano Man, the Stranger, the Entertainer, or even a Big Shot (just don't blame him for instigating any conflagrations), Billy Joel doesn't need much of an introduction. His debut album was released just over 50 years ago, and he was a fixture on radio and that TV channel that used to play music videos for decades.

Joel's career, at least from a 21st century perspective, is pretty front-loaded. Only one song on last night's set list didn't date from the '70s or '80s: "The River of Dreams," from his final studio album of the same name, a record that came out during Bill Clinton's first term. Recently, he's been name checked by Olivia Rodrigo (in "deja vu") which prompted him to bring her onstage at Madison Square Garden last month.

But touring is something he still loves, and he's been doing it off and on ever since, playing the final concert at Shea Stadium before its demolition, as well as 12 straight sold-out shows in MSG (where he still performs almost monthly), in addition to infrequent swings through Europe, Australia, and South Africa.

Last night was Joel's first Houston stop since 2015, and apart from the obvious changes in the calendar, it was almost like time had stood still. His voice proved as strong as ever, even on songs like "An Innocent Man," where he offered a disclaimer regarding the high note (which he hit effortlessly). If there was anything betraying his 73 years, it was in the deliberate way he navigated the stage.

Then again, it isn't like he was doing David Lee Roth karate kicks even in the Glass Houses days

A still wandering Minute Maid crowd was hurried to the seats by one of Joel's familiar intro tunes: the end titles to the The Natural, and he kicked off the 28-ish song set with "A Matter of Trust," the only cut from The Bridge and one of a few he performed on guitar instead of piano, before launching into "Pressure," a song that has lost little of its depressing urgency in the decades since its release.
click to enlarge
"Wait, *did* I start that fire?"
Photo by Eric Sauseda
Joel remarked that performing in Minute Maid was "very cool," before reminiscing about playing at a club in Houston in the '70s. He's probably referring to the long-gone Liberty Hall, which was located near the current site of the Toyota Center and one of the few smaller venues he gigged at before moving up to the Summit in the latter part of the decade.

The set list might be more notable for what *wasn't* included, considering Joel's ridiculous catalog of hits. Friday's show ticked off most of the expected biggies: "Just The Way You Are" ("And then she divorced me," was Joel's acerbic coda), "The Longest Time," "Allentown," "My Life," "Piano Man." And that's before even getting to the encore.

But no "Say Goodbye to Hollywood?" No "Honesty?" No "Downeaster Alexa?" It feels petty to complain about a handful of tunes left out of a blockbuster set, but that's part of the gig.

He introduced "The Entertainer" as the only single from Streetlight Serenade, "an album none of you have." Several folks in my immediate vicinity took issue with that, by the way. Then a pair of songs banned from certain radio stations: "Sometimes A Fantasy" and "Only the Good Die Young."

Last night was my second Minute Maid show (Taylor Swift's "Red" tour is a tough act to follow), and the crowd was possibly even larger, packed to the rafters for what we hope isn't the last time Billy Joel drops by.

Because his popularity is understandable, given the universality of his work. From "Pressure" to "Just The Way You Are" to "Movin' Out," Joel sings about themes familiar to most of us (we'll ignore the overt '60s pastiches). And though he didn't need to cover "Born to Run" to get that message across, he and  Springsteen share as visceral a connection with everyday people as two millionaire artists can.

And I always thought they should’ve put out an "Allentown"/"Youngstown" double EP or something.

But Joel is also sincere in his gratitude and apparent lack of pretension. His stage banter was relaxed and self-effacing, drawing hearty laughter and further proving his skill at playing an audience as well as he plays his piano.

Houston's crowds are notoriously averse to late night shows, but almost all of them stuck around for the encore, which included "Big Shot," "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," and "We Didn't Start the Fire," which — I'm sorry, Mr. Joel — is just dumb. "Trouble in the Suez?" "California baseball?" And then the 1970s get two whole things? It's like they turned "O.K. Boomer" into a song.

If it sounds like nitpicking, that's because it is. Respect to the man; not just for touring without any attendant "farewell" nonsense, but also for wearing a sweet ass suit for the whole show. Minute Maid is hard to keep air conditioned even when it isn't 95 degrees outside, but Billy Joel is one cool cat, under pressure or not.
click to enlarge
Don't ask him why. Seriously, don't.
Photo by Eric Sauseda
Personal Bias: When I was about 10, my mom put 52nd Street in our car's tape deck. I complained that I'd never heard of Billy Joel, but soon realized I recognized (and loved) just about all the songs on the cassette.

The Crowd: Yeah, I'm pretty sure these folks really did start the fire.

Overheard In The Crowd: "Why was this song ("Sometimes A Fantasy") banned?
"It's about jerking off on the phone."

Random Notebook Dump: "What's so bad about Hackensack?"

A Matter of Trust
Just the Way You Are
The Entertainer
An Innocent Man
Don't Ask Me Why
Start Me Up (Rolling Stones cover)
The Longest Time
Keeping the Faith
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
She's Always a Woman
My Life
Sometimes A Fantasy
Only the Good Die Young
Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen cover)
River of Dreams (with Dancing in the Streets)
I Go to Extremes
Nessun dorma (Sung By Mike DelGuidice)
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

We Didn't Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Tush (ZZ Top cover)
Big Shot
You May Be Right
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar