Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sing Me a Song Tonight: Billy Joel Sticks To a Familiar Gameplan, Belts Out Several Well-Placed Hits at Wrigley -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Joel
Wrigley Field, Chicago 
September 7, 2018

It would be wrong, or at least an overstatement, to say that I was disappointed by Billy Joel's performance Friday night at Wrigley Field.

On a pleasant night at my favorite place on earth, a 69-year-old rock legend was in good voice and spirits in playing 25 songs--or close to that, depending on how one counts snippets--across 135 minutes.

I had a good, face value seat in the upper deck with relatively little in the way of crowd disturbances--usually there are a few--and reveled in Joel classics like "My Life," "Movin' Out," "Allentown," "Only the Good Die Young," "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," "Piano Man" and more. (See the setlist here.)

Opening the show with "Big Shot," Billy and his crack band sprinkled in some nice album tracks from throughout his career, including "Summer, Highland Falls," "Vienna," "Big Man on Mulberry Street," "And So It Goes," "Sometimes a Fantasy" and for the first time across 16 shows this year, "No Man's Land," which opens 1993's River of Dreams album.

Paying fine tribute to Aretha Franklin, percussionist Crystal Taliefero stepped out front to sing a spirited rendition of "Respect" that certainly earned mine.

And in occasionally seeing where his fingers might take him across his grand piano keyboard, Joel played the coda to "Layla" and as he expressed his affinity for the Derek and the Dominoes classic, the band hurriedly figured out how to blast through the song's guitar-driven opening, with Billy singing a couple verses.

Having guitarist Mike DelGuidice croon a credible rendition of Puccini's "Nessum dorma" added a nicely operatic touch before the musical narrative that is "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

DelGuidice later showed his vocal dexterity with a bit of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" mashed into the show-closing "You May Be Right."

So along with many of his own great songs, Billy Joel paid homage to other musical heroes, and there was nothing obviously deficient about any of it.

To a simple, "How was the show?" query, I would definitely say, "Good" and not contradict anyone who said "Great."

Simply on paper, or screen as it may be, the setlist and all of the above conveys a truly superlative show. Which is why the rest of this review will largely read as a rationalization for my bestowing @@@@, and not 4-1/2@ or 5@ as I expected to heading into the Friendly Confines.

But to be clear, while I wasn't as dazzled as I hoped to be, there was nothing I disliked or that was bad.

And while I would guess that relatively few in the sold out crowd were seeing Billy Joel live for the first time--this was his fifth straight year playing at Wrigley and his seventh time overall (including a pair of 2009 shows with Elton John), making for the most of any musical artist and more than many baseball players--it is primarily in comparing this concert to past ones that my euphoria dims a bit.

Which may not be completely fair.

For Billy Joel clearly knows how to put on a crowd-pleasing show, and I think it's safe to say many--including myself--want to hear the setlist staples, even if we have before.

Singing along to "Piano Man" never gets old.

And although this was my sixth time seeing Billy Joel--including 2009 and 2014 at Wrigley--looking at his setlists from the 2014-2017 shows here reveals many songs not played on Friday that I may have enjoyed hearing: "A Matter of Trust," "Pressure," "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Down on Broadway)," "The Longest Time," "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," "Angry Young Man."

Obviously, Joel can't play all of his good songs every time out.

But of 22 non-cover songs performed on Friday, only three weren't played in centerfield in 2014. (And the same 19 songs were performed in 2017 and, predominantly, at most Billy Joel shows.)

In July 2014, Billy's mother passed away early in the week he was to play Wrigley Field, and I was a bit surprised the show wasn't postponed or canceled.

And perhaps I was reading too much into it, but despite playing all his great songs with the normal fervor, I thought he seemed--quite understandably--a bit subdued. (This was my review.)

Per past shows I've seen live or on DVD or even in just perusing setlists, Billy Joel usually does a good bit of goofing around, whether joking about this or that or playing snippets--and even full versions--of seemingly random cover songs, sometimes with special guests.

A few weeks ago, at Fenway Park in Boston--per played part of the band Boston's "More Than a Feeling," welcomed J. Geils Band's Peter Wolf to do "Centerfold" with him and played two songs with Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, who would play the same ballpark the next night.

At New York's Madison Square Garden, where he does one concert every month, Bryan Adams joined him last time out.

Obviously special guests aren't always possible, and with Fall Out Boy playing Wrigley on Saturday, I'm not suggesting Billy's mature crowd would've much cared if Pete Wentz came onstage for a blast through "Sugar, We're Going Down."

The point I'm trying to make is that, strange as it may sound, Billy Joel concerts are elevated from good/great to phenomenal by moments that go beyond his own greatest hits, such as fun vamping and other surprises, or even just a particularly festive mood on his part.

The 2014 Wrigley show--for logical reasons--seemed light on these moments, and though Billy appeared amiable and fairly talkative on Friday, there also wasn't enough to avoid feeling "been there, done that."

Sure, we got snippets of "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" and "My Kind of Town," but they're so obvious as to feel trite, and while "Layla," "Respect," the Puccini aria and a bit of "Rock and Roll" were all swell, I found myself mostly just watching and hearing the concert, without often being swept up in it.

Perhaps this had to do with my upper deck perch--a friend on the field was far more ecstatic despite agreeing that Joel could stand to shake things up a bit more--and I'm still quite glad I went.

But truly phenomenal concerts make me want to see the artist again as soon as I can--even the next night--and while I hope Billy remains in good stead and keeps coming around, I wouldn't feel compelled to revisit him for at least a few years, and even then I'd expect much of the same.

Of course, it's never bad to be able to assume--and get--a highly enjoyable show at the very least, and whenever I'm in the mood for a melody, I'm certain he'll have me feeling alright.

I love Billy Joel, and his music has meant a lot to my life. But in doing these big ballpark shows, I think he needs to loosen the setlist up a bit more and find ways to make the night unique for Chicago (beyond wishing the Cubs well, as he did).

I see that a couple years ago he played Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," but why not invite Dennis de Young around for a blast through "Come Sail Away"? 

I know, it seems a silly way to make a great show sensational, and Billy Joel certainly needn't listen to me.

But for all you know, I may be right.

Here's a bit of the crowd singalong on "Piano Man," a song I also posted part of in 2014:

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