Billy Joel to mix hits, lesser-known songs when tour visits Cleveland

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Billy Joel performs the first show of his Madison Square Garden residency in Jan. 2014, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

On April Fools’ Day, singer/songwriter Billy Joel won’t be trying to trick the thousands of fans that will pack Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to see his latest tour.

Joel, 64, who hasn’t released an album of pop music since 1993’s River of Dreams and hasn’t done a full solo tour since 2008, has hit the road with his veteran band and a songbook into which he has been digging rather deeply.

And his songbook of hits is quite deep. He’s had hits from all of his 12 solo albums starting with She’s Got a Way from his 1973 debut Cold Spring Harbor (though it didn’t become a charting hit until it was released as a single from 1982’s live album Songs in the Attic).

Throughout the late 1970s through all of the ’80s, Joel successfully mixed his sensitive singer/songwriter side found in ballads such as Just the Way You Are and New York State of Mind with his old school rock-and-soul-loving side heard in Uptown Girl and It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.

Though Joel’s musical output has waned (his last album was 2001’s classical solo piano album Fantasies & Delusions which topped the classical charts) he has continued to be one of pop/rock’s touring titans evidenced by his wildly successful series of Face to Face tours with fellow piano man Elton John that ran periodically from 1994 to 2010. More recently Joel became a “franchise” of Madison Square Garden where he has an opened-ended residency.

Joel has vowed to play a show a month “as long as there’s demand,” he told USA Today in December when the residency was announced. There has been plenty of demand because Joel has sold out every MSG show so far including his upcoming May 9 show.

Besides touring, Joel’s been keeping himself in the public eye. Last Wednesday, Joel and Sirius XM launched the limited run of the Billy Joel Channel that will span his half-century of music making from his 1964 work with the Echoes, the band Attila and all of his solo albums, along with archival interviews and excerpts from his beloved Master Class sessions (he did one at the University of Akron back in 1996).

In May, Joel will release the documentary and concert film A Matter of Trust — The Bridge to Russia, detailing his groundbreaking 1987 Russian Tour. The entertaining, time-capsule documentary has been in rotation on cable for about a month but will be released alongside an expanded recording of the full Live in Leningrad concert.

For the current Billy Joel in Concert tour, the 1999 rock hall inductee has been mixing in many of the expected hits such as Uptown Girl, Pressure, and It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me with lesser-played songs such as The Ballad of Billy the Kid from Piano Man and obscure album tracks such as Where’s the Orchestra and Surprises from 1982’s The Nylon Curtain and Shameless from 1989’s Storm Front. Joel has also been throwing in some random cover tunes, including Elton John’s Your Song, the Beatles and a few Motown classics that influenced him.

The reviews for Joel’s two-hour plus shows have been glowing, with reviewers noting Joel’s relaxed stage demeanor, humorous between-song banter and self-deprecating jokes. At a recent tour stop in Toronto, Joel, who has never been shy about publicly criticizing his own work, screwed up some of the lyrics to We Didn’t Start the Fire and rather than trudge on he stopped the band.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “That ain’t right. All you gotta do is (mess) up one word in that song and it’s a train wreck. It’s the same thing verse after verse (sings the melody). One of the worst melodies I ever wrote,” he told the crowd as the band chuckled behind him.

“That’ll be all over YouTube tomorrow,” he added.

“It’s OK. It was an authentic rock and roll (mess) up. We’re not on tape. You don’t see much of that anymore. OK, let’s hope we get through this one.” He then finished the song. And he was right, so far the clip has more than a million views.

At this point in his career, Billy Joel appears to be in full rock legend coast mode. With no new album to pedal or new songs to fit into his jam-packed set list of hits, Joel, who once tried to commit suicide and has had issues with drugs and alcohol, seems quite relaxed and satisfied. If he is never inspired to write another pop/rock song or release an album of new music, his legacy as one of the most popular songwriters of the last 40 years and his continued ability to deliver those songs on stage should keep his fans happy.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758.


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