About two weeks ago, I travelled to the Manchester Evening News arena (correction, it’s now the “Phones4U Arena”, something I wholeheartedly disagree with) to see Billy Joel, a man who was born in the Bronx, New York, four years after the end of the second World War. His father was a German Jew who fled to America to escape the Nazi regime, his mother an English Jew who I just assume fancied New York so went there, and I’m rather glad she did.
Over the past few decades of Billy Joel’s career, he’s had a few songs, and during his roughly just-over-two-hour set, his selection wasn’t half bad. Sure, there were a few songs I would of happily seen dropped, and a few I would have loved to see included, but thus is the struggle of life, and happiness is rarely found in the plans of strangers. The setlist he did compose though, looked a little bit like this:
- Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
- Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
- Everybody Loves You Now
- Where’s the Orchestra?
- A Room of Our Own
- New York State of Mind
- The Great Wall of China
- Uptown Girl
- Don’t Ask Me Why
- She’s Always a Woman
- Blonde Over Blue
- Rule Britannia
- Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
- The River of Dreams
- Piano Man
- We Didn’t Start the Fire
- It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
- You May Be Right
- Only the Good Die Young
As a show opener, I think “Miami 2017” is pretty much tied for top place, the signature piano intro was known by pretty much everyone there, the first few lines are easy to sing, and the build-up into the drums was really well done, the natural echo in the arena matched perfectly with the reverb on the album track. It had everything that it needed really, a well-known song, a good bashy-drum-beat in the middle, and a nice quiet outro just so you can remember where you are, who you are, and that jumping around madly doesn’t really fall into social etiquette, so you can awkwardly smile at the people looking bemused in your direction, and retake your seat.
But I think I’ve skipped a bit here, because, of course, there as a warm-up act in the form of Fyfe Dangerfield. Sure, he was alright. His songs were nice, he’s a talented pianist and he seemed like he really got into his performance. Unfortunately, he kind of ruined himself by breaking the number one rule for warm ups: You never, ever, ever in twenty bazillion years play a song in your warm up set when the original artist is going to come on in half an hours’ time and play it too. I don’t care if you played it in a John Lewis advert, I don’t care if you played a guitar version to try and differentiate yourself from the original. You just don’t play “She’s Always a Woman” when you’re supporting Billy Joel, because yes, he was very complimentary about your performance, but when he plays his version of the classic, it will just slaughter you. It’s like getting a child to have a go at painting the Mona Lisa, sure, all of the parents will clap when they lower their paint-covered hands from the canvas, because after all, isn’t it adorable? But I severely doubt that’s the reaction you want when you’re a professional musician.
Just don’t do it.
Anyway, away from Fyfe, more about Billy. I’m not going to do a song-by-song run through for the entire gig, because I doubt you have the amount of patience to read it all, so instead I’ll pick out some absolute gems and rub their fabulousness in your face for about a paragraph each.
Sound good? Excellent.
One of the best songs of the set was probably “Allentown”, just because of its status of “absolute tune”. The sound effects from the original track were played a little loud and did drown things out a little bit here and there, but it’s a live show, you’ve got to accept these kinds of things. You might be thinking “I’ve got no idea what this song is”, which fair enough, admittedly, Billy Joel hasn’t really transferred into the modern era spectacularly well. His songs aren’t well known these days, and every now again, if his name’s mentioned, you’ll get the odd “Oh yeah, isn’t that the guy that did Uptown Girl?” a statement which hurts me emotionally as well as mentally. It’s like that one really popular guy in school that everyone seems to love, but you just can’t understand why because he’s a real dickhead and he should be hidden away from the world in a room with no light or food. Consequently, I won’t be mentioning that song anymore, let’s just pretend it never happened, okay? Okay.
Back to the point of “Allentown”, if you don’t think you’ve heard it, but you’ve seen The Hangover Part 2, then you have heard it, just watch the part where Ed Helms is playing a guitar on a boat, (though I will add the lyrics have been somewhat… altered).
"New York State of Mind" was always going to be good, it’s just an absolute classic. Ever feel slightly brooding? Is it raining outside? Do you like New York? Then listen to this song and it will improve the experience tenfold, trust me. The horn section in the song has always been good, and the band Billy brought along for the tour was genuinely top notch. The screeching sax solos, the warm trumpet accompaniments, they all really improved the experience magnificently. Overall there was two guitars, a bass, and a four-person horn section. The band really exceeded itself, and it’s the kind of thing that a lot of people take for granted at gigs, so just bravo to them.
This is already quite long and I’m not even half way through the list, so I’ll do start speeding up, promise.
"Vienna" and "She’s Always A Woman" were both just good, similar styles of songs, as I’ve already said in relation to Fyfe Dangerfield, Billy nailed "She’s Always a Woman", and "Vienna" was just amazing too. They’re just the kind of songs you can just sit and appreciate, and then if you’re in a bit of a springy mood, you can just dance around to them, because they’re strange songs like that, they can both be extremely sad, or surprisingly happy, depending on your mood.
Skipping a few, we come to one of the most surreal moments of my life so far. “Rule Britannia” is not a Billy Joel song, it’s not a mid-80’s pop hit that he named after a famous patriotic song. He genuinely just played it on the piano out of nowhere, and before you knew it, 23,000 people were being good little Britons and singing the lyrics while he just waxed it out on the piano keys. I doubt I’ll ever be in such a position in my life again, and I’m not really sure I want to be.
This is where I’m regretting saying I’ll just do the really good ones, because the few that I could skip have already been, and now I’m faced with seven great songs and not much time to sample their divinity to you through my words. I’ll just try my best, and try not rush them too much, here we go.
"Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" is from Billy Joel’s most famous album The Stranger. It’s a beautiful seven minutes and 37 seconds long and tells the story of two people, they fall in love, and then get married and divorced then meet up later. Billy tells it better, trust me.
It was fucking fab. That’s about it really. Over seven minutes of just, fun.
“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man”. Probably one of Joel’s more literal songs, “Piano Man” was his first really big hit, and it pretty much set up the rest of his career. This was one of the songs where the aging pop icon really showed how much he hasn’t lost. His piano playing is still fantastic, and if you closed your eyes, apart from a slightly deeper tone, his voice has hardly changed at all. This was the last song before the encore, and it’s a little bit ironic that the song that started it all, would end a sell-out arena show almost 40 years to the day after it was released.
After everyone cheered and clapped, of course, he came back. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was more of a testament to his memory more than anything. And I even surprised myself, when that song came on; turns out I know a lot more lyrics than I thought I did. And If you don’t get why that’s an achievement for me, just go listen to the song, and shame yourself for not knowing it already.
Probably my favourite Billy Joel song ever, “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” was perfect. The music video for the song was played on the screen behind the stage, and apart from the wrinkles and the lack of hair, it was the same person. His mannerisms, body language, and his passion for his music really showed through.
To finish the show completely, I think “Only The Good Die Young” was an… applicable choice. Considering his age, it’s only appropriate to include some reference to mortality. As he danced around the piano, singing his song, living the life he has for nearly half a century, his energy just shone through, not just with the final song, but with the whole concert. He seems as vivacious and full of life as the videos he released 20 years before I was even an idea. My sister turned round to me, and pretty much summed up the feelings of the gig, “He’s never going to die, is he?” and I replied the only way I could:
“I certainly fucking hope not.”