The legendary Billy Joel played at Wrigley Field here in Chicago Friday night, and I got the chance to see him perform along with over 40,000 other elated fans. He played nearly 30 songs, threw in a few musical surprises, and showed us why a man of his stature can still sellout stadiums over 40 years into a career that has made him one of the most successful American artists of all time.
Joel is 67, and at times he looks the part. But he’s a man who has weathered many personal storms over the years (including 4 marriages, depression, suicide attempts at a younger age, and substance abuse). On Friday, August 26 – his third concert appearance in Chicago in as many years – he rocked the house almost as if he were casting away all those demons and celebrating his triumphs. He acknowledged failed marriages between songs (namely the songs that had been inspired by the marriages), reminded us that his drink on this night was “tea” as he continually sipped it, and mentioned current events, namely that Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs were doing “pretty good” now.
That was probably the biggest understatement of the night, given the Cubs are having their best season in over a century. And it was a prelude to Joel leading the appreciative crowd into “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” in which the hometown team’s fans gleefully inserted the Cubs’ lyrics. (I refrained as my baseball alliance is with the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the teams at whose expense the Cubs success has unmercifully come this year.)
But that was one of the few songs I didn’t join the others in (along with another hometown crowd-pleaser “My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is),” a song written in 1964 for the musical film Robin and The 7 Hoods and popularized by the late Frank Sinatra. The latter was because I simply didn’t know the words. But I was all too happy to join the others in song for the rest of Joel’s repertoire of hits (and a few non-hits).
And who wouldn’t be? The Billy Joel songbook is one for the ages. His songs have always been known for their mass appeal, with storybook lyrics that are easy to understand and time-tested pop hooks that are as inescapable now as they were during his heyday. And all of his hits were written by him (and him only), making Joel one of the most prolific singer/songwriters ever.
This performance was all about those songs (oh, and the fantastic stage light show that accompanied some of the songs). Joel didn’t spend a lot of time giving us frivolous banter. He has some well-documented political beliefs, but he wasn’t going to use this as a platform to espouse them (even if the temptation was there given the season, Joel reportedly doesn’t believe people pay for rock concerts to hear any of that). He barely even talked about the songs themselves – save for the occasional mention of a past relationship that inspired them, or a reference to the albums from which the tunes came. He gave the audience “fielder’s choices” a couple times, in which he offered up two song options for his next performance and the crowd’s reaction would dictate the winner.
The first of those were two tunes from his legendary 1977 album The Stranger: “Just The Way You Are” and its title track. “Just” was the winner, although seemingly only by a hair. I would’ve loved to hear “The Stranger” and yelled out “do both!” – albeit to no avail.
Joel even embraced a few non-hit album cuts along the way, playing “Big Man on Mulberry Street” from 1985’s The Bridge just seven songs into the set. “We don’t just do hits, we do album cuts, too” Joel teased as the song began. This crowd of fans ranging from eight to 80 was undaunted. They knew that an artist of Joel’s stature is entitled to do a personal fave or two along with the hits. We may not have known all the words, but we listened intently (the song was good) and we knew that it was only a taste of what was to come.
What did come next was another fielder’s choice: “Vienna” (also from The Stranger), which prevailed over “Summer, Highland Falls” (from his 1976 Turnstiles album). That almost seemed like a no-brainer based on the crowd’s lopsided reaction to the options, giving credence to the likelihood that the band probably knew which tune to prepare for before the show began.
The show then continued with more hits and more surprises. After “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” Joel played a brief “Layla” interlude, jokingly acknowledging “I didn’t write that one, though I wish I had.” During “Keeping The Faith,” he threw in a piano solo of a few bars of “Oh Happy Day,” the Edwin Hawkins Singers pop-gospel classic that gave new life to Joel’s own hit. During “The River of Dreams,” Joel’s last top-ten hit in 1993, he mixed in a performance of the Martha & the Vandellas Motown classic, “Heat Wave,” led by one of his background singers.
Then Joel’s band performed the famous opera tune, “Nessun dorma,” with vocals performed by Mike DelGuidice. Although it was likely not familiar to most in attendance, I remembered the aria from the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s critically acclaimed performance of it at the 1998 Grammys as a last-minute stand-in for Luciano Pavarotti. The crowd appreciated Joel’s “slight” deviation on this night as well.
Joel then gave us another classic from The Stranger, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” before giving the crowd what they had waited for for nearly two hours.
The piano man could’ve easily left it to the 40,000 people in attendance to sing his signature tune for him. Almost everyone in attendance knew the words, or did a good job lip-syncing it. Couples were holding hands, swaying and dancing to this waltz-beat tune as if it were his biggest hit single (it certainly was on this night). When it was over, Joel’s band took a quick break leaving the crowd shouting for more.
As thousands of people held up their lighters – or in this case – their smartphones’ spotlights to beckon his return, Joel and his band obliged for the encore.
At this point, Joel proceeded to rock out as if he were indeed wearing a younger man’s clothes – leading us through rousing performances of some of his biggest hits, including “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” “Uptown Girl” (still one of the best uses of background vocal arrangements in pop music history – in my opinion), “Big Shot,” “You May Be Right” (with a stellar infusion of Led Zeppelin’s hard rock staple, “Rock and Roll”) and “Only The Good Die Young.”
The encore was notable for all the big hits it included, making one wonder how it was possible for the show to have gone so long without them. Until one glances at Billy Joel’s overall music catalog, it’s easy to forget that there were many more songs that he didn’t sing but could have.
Yet the encore was also an amazing finish to what had been an awesome night, with great weather, an enthusiastic crowd and a Billy Joel musical soundtrack for most of our lifetimes.
The only downside of the night was the at-times strained sound system. It seemed overwhelmed by the band’s amplifiers, with distortion muting out key parts of some tunes. But it was an outdoor concert, and those are known to have a few acoustics challenges depending upon where you’re seated in the stadium.
And it was only a small distraction. Billy Joel succeeded in giving us what we wanted – a no-frills rock and roll show with no politics, no long drawn-out intermissions, no opening acts and no big-named guests (no Elton John).
It was all-Joel all the time, just as it should be.
Here is the setlist for his Chicago show at Wrigley:
- “Prelude/Angry Young Man”
- “My Life”
- “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”
- “Just The Way You Are”
- “The Entertainer”
- “My Kind of Town (Chicago is)”
- “Big Man On Mulberry Street”
- “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”
- “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
- “Layla” interlude (Clapton)
- “And So It Goes”
- “New York State Of Mind”
- “Don’t Ask Me Why”
- “Sometimes A Fantasy”
- “She’s Always A Woman”
- “Keeping the Faith”/”Oh Happy Day” interlude
- “The River of Dreams”/”Heat Wave” interlude
- “Nessun dorma” (aria composed by Giacomo Puccini from the opera Turandot; vocals by Mike DelGudice)
- “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”
- “Piano Man”
- “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
- “Uptown Girl”
- “It’s Still Rock N Roll To Me”
- “Big Shot”
- “You May Be Right”/”Rock and Roll” (Led Zeppelin)
- “Only The Good Die Young”