“I’m 69 now,” Billy Joel tells us, leaning back comfortably on his piano stool. “I used to like that number!” And this is his position for most of the evening physically and metaphysically: It’s piano stool turned bar stool confessional as he reminisces in a Joan Rivers-esque fashion about ex-wives and chats to us about our clothes, our singing ability and tells two particular women who seem to be lost that he won’t start the next song until they have found their seats. The women – now a hundred feet high on Billy’s giant screens – do well at not panicking until security personnel check their tickets and take them to their correct seats… in the next block to where they were looking.
Born in The Bronx, the native Noo Yawker seems at ease shooting the breeze with the Dublin audience in the 51, 000 capacity Aviva Stadium, his first Irish appearance since 2013 and only one this year. “I have no idea what I’m talking about,” he says and as he can’t hear us reply individually, he’s basically talking to himself. He’s designed ways to get us to communicate with him though: pitting songs against each other in a vote in what he calls his “multiple choice” quizzes. Two song titles are brought before the baying mob and whichever gets the loudest cheer is officially in the setlist. Of course, he’s designed it in such a way that his choice usually wins as we don’t hear the name of the second song until we finish cheering for the first and some audience members are hedging their bets.
“Vienna” a surprise win over “Just The Way You Are“, both from 1977’s The Stranger – an album that features heavily this evening – while the title track from An Innocent Man (“When I started dating ex 2,” he tells us) sits languishing in audience vote jail when up against Barbershop doo-wop singalong classic “The Longest Time“, something which seems to surprise Joel, perhaps not realising the Irish penchant for a singalong. He looks around to his backing band, slightly alarmed and warms up by entertaining us with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“, testing a falsetto that doesn’t need testing with a test that most people in the crowd would need to warm up to before tackling, rather than have it as the warm up itself. His band assemble into finger-clicking smoothness for the harmonies, a well-practiced, well-oiled machine as Billy keeps time with what appears to be a fly swatter. He’s in fine, full voice too: from smooth to falsetto to ferocious in the blink of an eye.
Joel has walked a tightrope since his first solo album release 47 years ago. A theatrical storytelling pop-rock mix, doo-wop harmonies with a hefty amounts of piano ballads thrown in and even skirting prog with “Pressure“, the frantic synth-driven second song this evening. Rejecting “Storm Front“, the crowd chooses blue collar tale “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” which throws in some sea shanty for good measure. He plays a section of traditional Irish song “The Rising Of The Moon” and the audience jig with it right into “My Life” as several blocks of pitch seating stand as one, by midway through the song the whole pitch on their feet as if they remember the caliber of the songwriter they are there to celebrate. As the song moves from defiant hope to a wistful echo of a bridge that wouldn’t be out of place on The Beatles’ later albums it’s a masterclass of major meeting minor.
It can be hit and miss of course. “Sometimes A Fantasy” didn’t do too well in the States, Joel tells us because radio DJs deemed it too risque. Maybe it’s too risque for Ireland too as it prompts a lot of people to visit the toilets or the bar. A similar reaction meets “And So It Goes” even though Joel tries to enamour it to us by showing the melodic similarities between it and “On Raglan Road“, which he sings and which gets a better reaction than the song it inspired. “She’s Always A Woman” with its big screen close-ups of delighted ladies in the crowd makes the audience hum with Joel to the very last hum of the song and the eternally uncool but still beautiful “River Of Dreams” bring the audience back and they stay with him as he shoehorns “A Hard Day’s Night” into the middle of the latter.
His band are on fire tonight, and not the last fire of the evening. Crystal Taliefero is everywhere at once; on the saxophone as part of the three-person brass section; on various percussion including bongos, congas, tambourine and shakers; doing backing vocals and though you can’t tell, actually having created the background vocal arrangements for “River Of Dreams” in the first place. We’re not completely sure why rhythm guitarist and ex-Billy Joel cover artist Mike DelGuidice is singing “Nessun Dorma“. Singing it fantastically, admittedly. As used as we are these days to scratchy, broken versions of the aria sang by Britain’s Got Talent contestants impressing an easily-pleased crowd, this is the real, soulful, strong deal. Of course, it signals “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and this composition has movements, people. Time passes, weight is lost, days are reminisced about and we circle back to the beginning again 7 minutes later, feeling we’ve learned something about life and Joel himself.
He determinedly attaches a harmonica stand to his face and those quick-witted of us enough know what’s coming. The rest get it a few seconds later when “Piano Man” begins and they sing. He goes quiet for a chorus and the audience fill in with: “Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man” to The Piano Man. It’s a surreal moment and the biggest thank you we could give him.
A brief departure from the stage only serves to increase anticipation and we’re rewarded when he returns, straps on a guitar and the screens burst into flames. Pictorially, of course. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is followed swiftly by “Uptown Girl” and some twirls of the microphone stand. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” shows him flagging a little and visibly out of breath he returns to his rightful place at the piano for “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right” with our opera hero DelGuidice bringing some Led Zeppelin into the mix with the “Lonely, lonely” snippet from “Rock And Roll“. And it’s over, 50,000 people departing the stadium, bursting into song in the queue to leave, the queue for the various buses and trains, warring factions in DART carriages battling two different songs at the same time and then drifting off into the night, ear worms aplenty for days.