NEW YORK – Billy Joel didn’t mess much with his usual set list.
He really didn’t even acknowledge the 20-month pandemic-fueled delay of his monthly Madison Square Garden residency other than a hearty, “Good evening, New York! We’re back at The Garden!”
But the spirit that makes these New York shows a bit more special and the songs resonate a tinge deeper was exemplified in the hat perched on Joel’s black baby grand. Battered and scarred, the No. 2 Lieutenant fireman’s helmet found on 9/11 that belonged to New York City firefighter Neil Skow made an encore appearance. The piece of history initially sat atop Joel’s piano for “The Concert for New York City” during that October 2001 event.
“I just thought we should have it here tonight,” Joel said, as he glided into the opening chords of, appropriately, “New York State of Mind.”
Since late summer, Joel, 72, has returned to the stage for a handful of stadium shows. But the sold-out Friday revival of his monthly residency at Madison Square Garden – which started in 2014 with no end date apparent – marked the return of one of the most unique arrangements in live music.
For nearly 2 ½ hours, Joel and his band of aces – highlighted by long timers Mark Rivera on saxophone, Crystal Taliefero on percussion and Tommy Byrnes on lead guitar – rolled through a 25-song set list that launched with a pop of yellow lighting and the piano tinklings of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and ended with the rollicking defiance that powers “You May Be Right.”
In between, a noticeably slimmed-down Joel, clad in his usual uniform of black suit and tie, hopscotched through 50 years of hits, album cuts and an unlikely viral entry on TikTok. Playing on his traditional open-backed stage, Joel stayed seated throughout most of the concert as his piano slowly rotated every few songs to ensure facetime with fans on all sides.
He integrated a snippet of “Ode to Joy” at the start of “Movin’ Out,” delivered sneering lyrics with the coiled keyboards of “Pressure” and audibly strolled through the wistful study of aging known as “Vienna.”
Though some songs have been modified in key to accommodate Joel’s current range, he sounded robust on the underappreciated rocker “Sometimes a Fantasy” – a song about lust muffled by its perky bounce – and melodious on the wry ballad, “She’s Always a Woman.”
Joel joked at the end of the song that he still doesn’t understand his own lyric, “‘She can’t be convicted, she’s earned her degree.’ What the hell was I talking about?” he asked rhetorically before shrugging and shooting one of many smiles and playful faces at his band.
Much as been made recently of the resurgence of Joel’s name in the zeitgeist – youthful stars Olivia Rodrigo and BTS have referenced him in song or influence – and “Zanzibar,” a jazz-rock-fusion track from 1978’s “52nd Street” album has been the backdrop of a TikTok dance craze. With its searing trumpet solo (kudos to Carl Fischer for his mighty efforts) and tricky time changes, the song, while not the most obvious viral hit, still captivates.
Those younger fans who discovered Joel through parental influence or pop culture dotted the crowd at The Garden, singing along fervently with 1974’s “The Entertainer,” Joel’s brilliantly cynical look at showbiz artifice, and the percussion-laden title track of his last pop album, 1993’s “River of Dreams” alike.
But while fans gratefully absorbed Joel’s music all night, when he strapped on a harmonica neck holder – the obvious indication that his theme song, “Piano Man,” would soon emanate from the stage – the enormity of the occasion landed.
As Joel seesawed the waltzing cadence on his piano, fans swayed along to the chorus like happy, inebriated sailors in a bar, the entire arena experiencing a communal concert moment so deeply missed.
Nearly 30 more minutes of music followed “Piano Man” – a bright “Uptown Girl,” a hip-swiveling “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and a punchy “Big Shot” among the offerings – but it was during that signature song that a certain realization struck.
We now know not to take these Joel shows for granted. We now know that “I’ll see him next time” isn’t an automatic possibility. We now know that, with apologies to Seals & Crofts, we may never pass this way again. Don’t let the opportunity lapse.