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Concert review: Billy Joel shows Phoenix he’s more than just a piano man

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Billy Joel in concert, June 1, 2014, Phoenix, AZ

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One of the world’s best cover bands came to Phoenix last night, playing portions of songs from artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, The Beatles and even Beethoven. In between, they also managed to squeeze in twenty songs written by their band leader, Billy Joel. Sunday night, June 1, 2014, a sold out crowd at Phoenix’ U.S. Airways Center were treated to two hours of ballads, rock and roll and an endless stream of “name that tune.” For the Phoenix crowd, Billy Joel still remained their champion and continued to win their hearts.

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As Randy Newman’s soundtrack from “The Natural” played over the superb sound system, the arena went dark. Suddenly a blue light cut through the darkness and shone down on clearly the best dressed man in the building. Decked out in his suit and tie, there was Billy Joel at his piano, playing the opening notes to “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)” from Joel’s 1976 release “Turnstiles.” The place erupted.

Soon, Joel’s eight piece band joined in. Led by long time Billy Joel band member, sax player, Mark Rivera, they provided enrichment to Joel’s music all night long. Equally impressive was the video screen display that hung from the roof in front of the stage. When not showing close ups of Joel or the band, the video images being projected constantly complemented the music.

The energetic “Pressure,” followed, with Joel’s manic light show matching the hectic pace of the song. Just in case the lights, video and sound weren’t enough to overload one’s senses, Joel’s piano platform began to turn so that Joel could face all sections of the audience.

Joel then introduced himself as “Billy Joel’s dad,” looking up at the video screen with disbelief that the person he saw was actually him. With the daytime temperature reaching 106 degrees, Joel remarked that “it was freaking hot.” Unlike Joel, that’s why none of the audience chose to wear a suit that evening.

Those in attendance were then given a choice as to which song they wished to hear, the lesser known “Summer, Highland Falls,” also from “Turnstiles,” or “Vienna,” off of Joel’s most popular studio album, “The Stranger” (1977). The crowd chose “Vienna” and was not disappointed.

From there, Joel amazed with his endless library of other artists’ music. A few stanzas from Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” and Elton John’s “Your Song,” (Elton lied said Joel, “he’s got lots of money,”) led into “Zanzibar.” The jazzy number featured some nice trumpet work by Carl Fischer.

Not afraid to poke fun at himself, after playing the majestic “The Ballad of Billy The Kid,” Joel then deconstructed the song’s lyrics to show all of their flaws. Although the lyrics of the song may be factually inaccurate, that didn’t detract from Joel’s instrumentally beautiful and powerful number.

Joel’s horn section, Rivera, Fischer and Crystal Taliefero (whose many talents also included percussion, harmonica and vocals), came to the front of the stage for “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” The familiar number brought many back to their feet to sing and clap along.

For the next few songs, the pace ebbed and flowed, slowing down for compositions such as “And So It Goes,” and “She’s Always A Woman,” while speeding up for “Allentown” and “My Life.” As “proof we’re not on tape,” the band played several verses of The Eagles “Take It Easy,” prior to “She’s Always A Woman.” And only Billy Joel would figure out that Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy,” was the perfect lead in for “My Life.”

As a surprise, Joel moved away from his piano and was content to play rhythm guitar to back up one of his roadies’ singing of AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell.” For an audience that came for the more mellow sounds of Billy Joel, they certainly could loudly shout out the lyrics and properly pump their fists into the air.

The always chilling “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” was a snapshot of the entire concert. Joel’s voice nailed both the softer introductory beginning and the more ferocious parts found in “The Ballad of Brenda and Eddie” section, or “Brender and Eddie,” as it may sometimes sound. Joel stoically played the song’s beginning and bounced on his piano bench for the up tempo portion of the song. The band’s lush sound was spine tingling for the transition back to the song’s ballad ending. With the crowd fully participating, hands waving goodbye to Brenda and Eddie and loudly singing the “woh ohs,” it was clear that this was an audience favorite.

Well, one of many favorites. Many danced to Taliefero’s conga drum beat found in “The River of Dreams,” which suddenly morphed into The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night,” before returning back to the original song.

The night’s best use of the video screens was for “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” with all those mentioned in the song’s lyrics being shown quickly on the screens. For the song, Joel went back to playing guitar while singing vocals.

“Big Shot,” was another fan favorite with Joel placing a towel on his head and Taliefero appearing to give fellow brass members, Rivera and Fischer a what for. The song’s frantic pace caused Joel to be out of breath requiring him to need a couple of attempts before beginning the harmonica introduction to the regular set’s last song, “Piano Man.” The song brought out many a cell phone’s flashlight being used in place of Bic lighters and the crowd may have been singing the song louder than Joel.

With the entire audience up screaming for an encore, Joel returned, along with concert opener, Davin McGraw, for “You May Be Right.” Like a jockey trying to coax a racehorse to victory over the final furlong, Joel literally appeared to whip himself towards the concert’s end.

Bass player Andy Cichon and guitarists Tommy Byrnes and Mike Delguidice joined the brass section and Joel at the front of the stage for the closing, “Only The Good Die Young.” Only drummer Chuck Burgi and keyboardist, Dave Rosenthal, due to instrument restrictions, stayed in the back.

After a night of listening to and watching the performance of twenty of Billy Joel’s own songs and parts of ten songs from other artists, not only does one appreciate Joel’s highly honored song writing ability, but also his amazing ability on piano. He sounded strong vocally and his in between song banter would top many comedians for its humor.

Billy Joel proved that he was more than just a piano man. After Sunday night’s performance, although Joel may know the game, we won’t forget his name. But if we do, he’s got a great shot at leading a cover band.

Set List: Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) | Pressure | Vienna | Zanzibar | New York State of Mind | The Ballad of Billy The Kidd | Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) | And So It Goes | Allentown | She’s Always A Woman | My Life | Don’t Ask Me Why | Highway To Hell | Scenes From An Italian Restaurant | The River of Dreams/A Hard Day’s Night | We Didn’t Start The Fire | It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me | Big Shot | Piano Man | Encore: You May Be Right | Only The Good Die Young

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