Billy Joel is most certainly the Piano Man but don’t forget he’s also The Entertainer.
The New York mainstay returned to Portland for his first solo performance in 10 years on Friday at the Moda Center playing to a capacity crowd (including behind the stage) who hung on to every note and happily dancing for two and a half hours to a 25 song set.
Joel spent much of the first half of the evening letting the audience choose songs as he took a walk down memory lane and strolled through nearly 50 years of music. He opened the show with “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” – a perfect song to start, right? – and “Pressure” before having a sit-down with the massive crowd. Joel played dueling pianos of sorts with Elton John for their tour here in 2010 – but his solo appearance in 2007 somehow failed to fill the upper bowl.
In his routine this go-around, Joel mentioned an album, sometimes poking fun at how well it did or not did in the charts, and offered the audience two songs off that album, playing the track receiving the loudest roar. Sometimes it was obvious and almost on cue like “She’s Got a Way” off his debut 1971 album Cold Spring Harbor which beat “Everybody Loves You Now.” Other times not so much like “Zanzibar” or “Stiletto” off 1978’s 52nd Street. And, yet, sometimes the audience wanted both songs like when “Vienna” won out over “Just the Way You Are” off 1977’s The Stranger and demanded he play their second choice afterwards. But Joel amusingly had none of it.
This approach cozied-up the venue a bit as Joel managed to turn the arena into his own little piano bar, delighting the audience with some humor while fully engaging them into the show. But after “Moving’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and a bit of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” which Joel nailed vocally (seriously, it sounded like a backing track of Hendrix playing) the show moved forward at a rapid pace as he grabbed the reigns and powered through hit after contemporary hit.
Joel joked after playing “The Entertainer” he was told he needed to release new records lest the fans forget but “My last was 1993 and I’m still here” he said to the crowd’s approval. Prior to his offerings off 1989’s Storm Front Joel mentioned how his manager ripped him off, hence the album title. The fantastic “Downeaster ‘Alexa” beat “And So it Goes.”
Joel, 68, sounded as strong as he did during all those platinum selling records of the 1970s. His tenor, flawless all evening but really shined on “New York State of Mind,” “She’s Always a Woman” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” which opened the encore. He mostly stayed behind the keys but picked up the guitar for a few songs including “A Matter of Trust” and hung out up front with just microphone in hand on others including “…Fire,” “Uptown Girl” and “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me.”
Guitarist Michael DelGuidice added some flavor with a rousing rendition of the Italian “Nessun Dorma” bringing some of the biggest applause of the night and Joel and the rest of the band slayed the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” The encore brought most to their feet even those in the rafters as he brought life to a swath of songs stretching from 1978 to 1989 with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Uptown Girl, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” “Big Shot” and “You May be Right” – a greatest hits package, no less.
Of course, Joel closed the main set with the classic, an overwhelming audience favorite (everyone sang along) and what he’s so well known for – “Piano Man” off the album of the same name. I remember exactly where I was when I heard this legendary song again – for the first time – at the intersection of Harbor Boulevard and Bastanchury Road in Fullerton, CA. I don’t know why it settled in then, I always liked it but it immediately became an instant and timeless favorite. It’s wholly complete – an entire story within the confines of the lyrics – that drops you into a smoky lounge along with a beautifully written melody that pulls the heartstrings and makes you ponder which character best represents you.
It’s why I came to see Billy Joel 10 years ago, only after seeing discounted tickets (if you can believe that) at near midnight on television. By many respects, Joel started my personal trek of attending concerts of bands and artists I always enjoyed but never thought for a New York minute seeing live. Joel is a consummate musician through and through; his catalog of music illustrious. And the show? No wonder it was sold out.
Yes, Billy Joel plays a mean piano but he’s also an awesome entertainer.
Billy Joel Setlist in Portland, OR at Moda Center
- Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
- A Matter of Trust
- She’s Got a Way
- The Entertainer
- The Downeaster ‘Alexa
- Stop in Nevada
- New York State of Mind
- The Longest Time
- Moving’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
- My Life
- She’s Always a Woman
- The River of Dreams
- Take It Easy
- Nessun Dorma
- Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
- Piano Man
- We Didn’t Start the Fire
- Uptown Girl
- It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me
- Big Shot
- You May be Right