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Billy Joel brings rock, laughs to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland

Billy Joel concert at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, 4-1-2014


My first Billy Joel concert experience was much like Gavin DeGraw’s. Having already devoured and committed albums like Streetlife Serenade, The Stranger, Glass Houses, and An Innocent Man to memory as a juvenile, it was nothing short of fascinating to finally see and hear Long Island’s favorite son bringing his tunes to life at the old Richfield Coliseum in 1986.

Billy Joel brings music, laughs to Cleveland on April Fool's Day 2014
Peter M. Roche
"Big Shot" Billy Joel rouses a packed house in Cleveland
Peter M. Roche

DeGraw—who opened for Joel at Quicken Loans Arena last night—said he was honored to come full circle and support Billy on tour rather than watch from the rafters. The Catskills soul crooner told the sold-out house he was inspired to pursue a musical career after seeing Joel with his prison guard father in the mid-1980s. That decision has paid off for the 37-year old, who warmed up The Q crowd with thirty minutes of upbeat pop-rock.
But more on DeGraw later.

Joel reminisced on his Coliseum days early in his set. The six-time Grammy-winner described being sideswiped en route to a show there eons ago, and how he was forced to flag down traffic in frigid Cleveland temps. A local EMS crew “got their asses in a sling” after traveling outside their jurisdiction to rescue the rocker and transport him to the gig.

“I’m so glad we don’t have to drive out to that place anymore,” sighed Joel.

As it turned out, Joel gave the first rock concert at the new Gateway facility—then called Gund Arena—shortly after its October 1994 grand opening. The semiretired singer hasn’t released a studio album since then, but Billy hasn’t skipped a beat when it comes to dazzling capacity crowds with his FM classics and fan-favorite back-tracks.

Lively opener “Miami, 2017” chronicled a hypothetical apocalypse in New York and subsequent survivor exodus to Florida to the sound of lilting piano, uproarious guitar, and sweet saxophones. The 1976 Turnstiles tune gained new significance post 9-11, retains its thematic “seen the lights go out on Broadway” punch, and made a good barometer for everything after.

Paranoia-fueled “Pressure” was the first of many chartbusters Joel dusted off during the two-hour soiree, while “All for Leyna” (from 1980’s Glass Houses) provided another less-familiar goody for diehards. Joel reflected on his lyrics following the spirited “Entertainer,” whimsically remarking how 1) he hasn’t had a “latest record” in decades, and 2) he proved himself wrong about needing to cook up new hits and garnering airplay, repeatedly touring his oldies to packed houses—included a whopping 12-night sellout stint at Madison Square Garden in 2006. Joel also observed that at no point during poignant piano piece “Summer, Highland Falls” does he ever reference the titular town (in Orange County, NY).

Billy confessed April Fool’s Day always makes him feel “a little dopey.” Accordingly, he laced his set with a sight gags and jokes that came off like rock star equivalents of “Kick Me” signs being stuck on unsuspecting backs: He faked reliance on a cane to help him walk, channeled Dean Martin on a snippet of “That’s Amore,” quoted The Beatles with a verse from “Get Back,” and even took a potshot at controversial Republican rocker Ted Nugent.

The middle of Joel’s meat-and-potatoes marathon consisted of cleverly-sequenced tunes that showcased his ability to absorb and regurgitate musical styles. “Ballad of Billy the Kid” was part spaghetti western, part schlock symphony: Joel said he wrote the tune based on a “shitty cowboy movie” he’d envisioned in his head. “Zanzibar”—a tale about a dive-bar musician who flirts with waitresses and watches sports on TV between sets—was marinated in lounge jazz, but was delivered with sufficient tough guy swagger (even from Joel’s piano stool). The 52nd Street number also introduced horn players Carl Fischer (trumpet) and Mark Rivera (sax). “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Allentown” were powered as much by Fischer’s clarinet as by guitarist Tommy Byrnes’ guitar and Andy Cichon’s rumbling bass. Joel peppered the John Lennon-influenced “Room of Our Own” with a string of dark lyrical opposites (“You’ve got diamonds and I’ve got spades / You’ve got pills and I’ve got razor blades”) and plenty of honkytonk piano.

Utility player Michael Delguidice strummed an acoustic guitar on the elegant “Always a Woman” while Joel tickled the ivories and Rivera played flute. Salsa-flavored “Don’t Ask Me Why” bounced along on Latino rhythms. Later, the band paid tribute to ‘50s / ‘60s doo-wop groups with “Uptown Girl”—which Joel sent out to squeaky-voiced Four Seasons singer Frankie Valli.

Also joining Billy were longtime backup singer / percussionist / sax / harmonica player Crystal Taliefero and drummer Chuck Burgi. David Rosenthal provided whatever was needed in the synthesizer / electronic keyboard department, enabling Joel to stay parked at his baby grand or wander a bit, as he did later. Thumping the same Kurzweils and Yamahas preferred by Eddie Flanagan, Rosenthal added brass textures and soothing strings sounds that couldn’t otherwise be produced without an orchestra.

Speaking of which.

Billy involved the audience in customizing the show by letting them choose (by way of noise) which ballad they’d rather hear: When a call for “Where’s the Orchestra?” failed to generate much positive reaction, Joel opted for “And So It Goes”—a melancholy valentine from 1989’s Storm Front. Too bad; we were hoping to hear the seldom-played Nylon Curtain softy.

“Now’s a good time for you gents to hit the restroom,” Joel quipped.

Live camera feeds of Billy and band were projected on a bank of vertical LCD panels overhanging the stage. Depending on the material, the screens also displayed mood-enhancing video vignettes and still images. During “New York State of Mind,” for example, the mosaic flickered with overhead shots of the Big Apple, its familiar skyline, and the Statue of Liberty. “Movin’ Out” was accompanied by a cartoon clip of a Bronx barrio. The panels resembled the outside of an apartment building (with uniform windows) during “Room of Our Own,” and showed steelworkers in hard hats during rustbelt lament“Allentown.”

The show’s dynamic second half climaxed with gospel-tinged boogie “River of Dreams” (mashed neatly with Ohio State unofficial anthem “Hang On, Sloopy”) and multipart suite “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” whereon the crowd giddily sang along with Billy about ex-prom king and queen Brenda and Eddie—whose premature nuptials and marital strife were juxtaposed by Joel’s romantic “bottle of white” candlelight dinner verses (and smoky sax on the parts of Rivera, Fischer, and Taliefero). Heck, even truck driver / roadie “Chainsaw” got in on the action, bounding onstage to mimic Bon Scott on a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” as Billy played guitar.

Milking the April 1st shtick, Joel strapped on a harmonica and impersonated Bob Dylan before commencing with his signature “Piano Man.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s Cleveland contingent sang along, per usual—but Joel wasn’t finished. Encores “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Big Shot” saw Billy twirling his mic stand, impersonating Elvis, and vamping across the lip of the stage, a la the song’s spoiled, coke-sniffing diva.
The bald, beefy 64-year old no longer climbs atop his piano (or fakes somersaulting from it), but his stage presence still bristles with the same “take no shit” physicality you remember: Beneath the veneer of Billy’s dark suit and tie still lurks a talented New York teen with a chip on his shoulder.

Joel's moves were even more Elvis-exacerbated for rebellious Glass Houses rocker “You May Be Right,” which had the majority of the arena up and dancing (like the Weavers, Mickos, and DeMarcos, Granziers, and MacGregors). Thematically, it made perfect sense to follow (and conclude) with Billy’s Catholic school ode to bad behavior, “Only the Good Die Young.”

We’ve caught Joel over a dozen times in concert since that ’86 show in the sticks, yet confidently rank last night’s lively spectacle among his best Cleveland appearances. Billy may have lost some hair and acquired a few wrinkles since his MTV heyday, but he’s still a consummate performer. His now-professorial, grandfatherly countenance belies his beloved piss-and-vinegar palooka persona—traces of which were apparent in his blue collar banter—and one suspects Joel enjoys performing his classics even more than he lets on.

We were partial to Billy’s old-school band (drummer Liberty DeVitto, bassist Doug Stegmeyer, and guitarists David Brown and Russell Javors) until yesterday’s event, where the only ‘80s alumni onstage were Rivera and Taliefero. This lineup has capably backed Joel on several Face-to-Face Tours with Elton John, a pair of sign-off shows at Shea Stadium, and at several major charity events and one-offs (Hurricane Sandy benefit, etc.) in the late 2000’s. They’ve certainly come into their own as a cohesive unit—and definitely started a fire at The Q.

Who knows? Maybe someday The Piano Man—who now lives a quiet, nautical life on Oyster Bay—will develop a musical itch that can be scratched only by recording another pop-rock album. Joel apparently became jaded and withdrew from daily industry contact in the mid-‘90s after being screwed over by his ex-manager and others wanting more than their share of the pie—but we’d welcome an addendum to the “Famous Last Words” Joel left us with in ’93 (and don’t much care how well a new album might fare in today’s fickle marketplace).

Until then, we’ll have to make do with Billy’s classical music (Fantasies and Delusions was an impressive—but entirely different—affair) and the many compilations, box sets, and other repackages hawked regularly by Joel’s label: Re-mastered audio (and video) versions of Billy’s legendary 1987 Russian concert, KOHLEPT, are due in May.

DeGraw acquitted himself marvelously Tuesday night, especially given that few ticketholders (including this writer) even knew Gavin was on the bill. Fresh off a stint on Dancing With the Stars and with a new RCA album under his belt (Make a Move), the dapper-dressed “Best I’ve Ever Had” singer wasted no time winning new converts. He even wandered into the crowd four songs in and mingled (mostly with the ladies) casually while belting into a wireless microphone, spotlights tracing his path through the cramped aisles.

DeGraw’s something of a road dog: He visits House of Blues Cleveland on an annual basis, performed at Horseshoe Casino this past October, and will be back in Ohio again for a gig at Northfield Park’s Hard Rock Live Rocksino on April 17th.

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