There is something wonderfully refreshing in seeing a performer on stage who is completely at ease with himself, his band, and his surroundings. A performer who is simultaneously at ease with himself but ultimately controlled and professional, who knows when to play and when to reel it in for the big moments. And that was definitely Billy Joel on May 16 at the Target Center.
There were moments in between songs where Billy Joel just did not seem to care, but in a good way. His talk was loose, his demeanor friendly and playful, and his banter sharp. Thrown in here and there between his classic work, Joel played a little bit of Prince’s “1999,” a touch of ZZ Top’s “Tush” and just a touch of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” as well as playing guitar while his long-time roadie Chainsaw performed AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” showing something of a broad musical taste and more than a little something of a wonderful sense of humor. This humor showed all night as he took shots at himself all night long, marveling at the fact that as he’s aged he’s come to look more and more like his father (not a positive in his eyes, mind you) and marveling a bit at the fact that people still come to the shows, even though he hasn’t had a charting album in over 23 years. In many ways, Joel’s banter makes one think of some sort of cliched “cool uncle,” the guy that always has the best stories at family get-togethers and somehow always comes across as charming regardless of what’s being said. He seemed affable and approachable and in many ways just another guy instead of a legendary musician who, for the most part, doesn’t get around much.
But of course, he doesn’t need one. Joel has a powerful catalogue to draw from, and the joyful frenzy with which he performed made non-singles like “Zanzibar” feel just as worthwhile as his classics like “Movin’ Out,” “Allentown” and “New York State of Mind.” Joel even gave the crowd a bit of the say in how the night played out, noting that “we can’t play them all, so let’s play what you want. Joel gave the audience a pair of “Fielder’s Choices”, first giving the crowd the option between “The Stranger” and “Downeaster Alexa” (the latter winning handily) and then the choice between “Summer Highland Falls” and “Vienna,” of which “Vienna” was the chosen track, but not by a large margin. The performance of the evening, though, had to go to the aforementioned “New York State of Mind,” which was particularly riveting with Joel, adorned in shades in an homage to Ray Charles, absolutely crushing with the help of a band who were tight, tight, tight.
Indeed, every performer on stage felt like they were on, and every aspect of the show, from the audio to the lighting and performances, was incredibly focused and on point, which contrasted wonderfully with Joel’s playful demeanor throughout the evening. It was odd to say the least to see Joel on the edge of something of a tangent, only to reel it in and absolutely slay with a killer performance alongside a group of musicians who were firing on all cylinders.
At 66 years old, Joel can still give a knockout performance. There is a genuine love of both music and performing that comes across when Joel is on stage, and it is this love, coupled with his flippant and self-deprecating attitude, which created the infectious enthusiasm that was clearly running wild throughout the jam-packed Target Center.
In the spirit of Joel’s “Fielder’s Choice,” here’s one for you: go to a thesaurus, and look up “amazing.” Now pick a synonym of your choice and you’ll have exactly the right idea of how Billy Joel’s performance was at the Target Center.
©2015 Caleb Baumgartner