One of these days Billy Joel will lose his voice, his will to perform and there’ll be someplace that he’d rather be.
But given the energetic, playful performance he gave for his first-ever New Year’s Eve concert in South Florida Thursday night at Sunrise’s BB&T Center that won’t happen. Not, to quote one of the songs he let his audience select, for the longest time.
Remarkably, Joel’s elastic voice sounds undiminished by time, almost as youthful and pliable as it did when he first released the hits and buried cuts he played from his most popular albums, The Stranger (1977), 52nd Street (1978), Glass Houses (1980) and An Innocent Man (1983).
Of course, he’s no longer the “angry young man” of yesteryear who might just as easily hurdle over his piano as play the instrument. These days, Joel sits for nearly the duration of his 2 1/2-hour concert, a point that doesn’t go unnoticed by the star.
“That’s it for the special effects,” Joel quipped after his piano revolved on a turntable so that everyone packed into the arena could have a closer look. “The piano goes this way. The piano goes that way,” he said, gesturing with his small (for a piano player) hands. Just before, he traded banter with actor/comedian Kevin James, who took over Joel’s piano seat to play the opening notes of Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) as if wearing a catcher’s mitt. “This thing’s way out of tune,” James teased.
Joel’s conversational manner is an audience-pleasing skill the showman learned through five decades of live performances, from the small piano bars he detailed in his first autobiographical hit, Piano Man (1973), to the 20,000-seat arenas he fills now.
His self-deprecating wit lets his fans know he’s grown with them. To the tune of It Was a Very Good Year, the old Frank Sinatra standard, Joel, in a mock Sinatra-style baritone croon, altered the lyrics to sing: “Now I’m 66 and I lost all my hair/But at this point, I really don’t care.”
Why should he? To hear Joel tell it, 2015 was a very good year. He set a house record at Madison Square Garden and his daughter Della Rose was born in August. “I got married to my fourth wife on the Fourth of July. I did good business. I’m not in a hurry for next year,” he said after the opening two songs, My Life and Pressure.
Joel began playing at 10:30 p.m., after a likeable opening set from Junior Piano Man, Gavin DeGraw, and didn’t exit until 1 a.m. He structured the concert to play like the ultimate Millennium gig — the greatest pop hits of the last century, his own and spirited covers, including a trio of Led Zeppelin songs to lead into the New Year countdown where he was aided by guests Howard Stern and Jimmy Kimmel.
Most of the covers were mere snippets, many of them, like the Zeppelin material and ZZ Top’s Tush, were designed to showcase his band’s chops. In that regard, Joel was a most generous leader, often letting his musicians take center stage, especially trumpet player Carl Fischer on the jazzy Zanzibar, saxophonist Mark Rivera on New York State of Mind and guitarist Tommy Byrnes on numerous harder rockers like Sometimes a Fantasy.
Before midnight, Joel’s set was looser, punctuated with chameleon-like vocalizing on song fragments from the catalogs of Elton John (Your Song) and David Bowie (Changes), the latter of which Joel jokingly disparaged. “Always reminded me of Anthony Newley.”
After midnight, the band and Joel locked tighter, delivering explosive numbers until, sweating, he seemed spent.
But Joel had one more classic to play an hour into the new year, the song that started it all. With a slight change of Piano Man’s lyric, the singer-songwriter summed up the entire show and, for that matter, the appeal of his long career:
“It's a pretty good crowd for a New Year/And the manager gives me a smile/’Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see/To forget about life for a while.”
Billy Joel set list
‘This Is the Time’
‘It Was a Very Good Year’ (snippet of Frank Sinatra song)
‘The Longest Time’
‘Moving Out (Anthony’s Song)’
‘Your Song’ (snippet of Elton John song)
‘Say Goodbye to Hollywood’
‘Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)’
‘Changes’ (snippet of David Bowie song)
‘New York State of Mind’
‘One For My Baby’ (snippet of Frank Sinatra song)
‘Sometimes a Fantasy’
‘Don’t Ask Me Why’
‘She’s Always a Woman’
‘Fool in the Rain’ (snippet Led Zeppelin song)
‘Good Times Bad Times’ (Led Zeppelin cover)
‘Auld Lang Syne’
‘River of Dreams’
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (Beatles cover)
‘Tush’ (ZZ Top cover)
‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’
‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’
‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’
‘You May Be Right’
‘Rock and Roll’ (snippet Led Zeppelin song)
‘Only the Good Die Young’