A few weeks ago, Slate's Ron Rosenbaum dubbed Billy Joel "the worst pop singer ever."  It was stated declaratively, not as a question. I don't agree with Rosenbaum except on one point: "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" really is a wretched song, riddled with clichés and an insipid melody. But it was with Rosenbaum's theory running through my mind that I watched Joel Thursday night.

I was in Rancho Mirage, Calif., one of the journalists invited to the opening of a 2000-seat new venue, The Show, at Agua Caliente Casino. (I wonder how much they paid consultants to come up with that name?)

I'm guessing that Joel was on a "bank run"-a gig that pays an exorbitant amount of money for the effort required. Joel was one of the first acts I ever saw in concert when I was a teenager and those early shows were great. He was full of piss and vinegar, literally spitting words out and pounding the piano keys until they screamed for mercy. I was a huge fan for years so it was disappointing to see the Angry Young Man of my youth had turned into a slightly crotchety middle-aged man. Joel is 59, but he looks a good 10 years older. Joel must know that he looks slightly shocking: after opening with "My Life," he greeted the audience with, "Hi, I'm Billy's dad."
He ran through hit after hit, but the Joel that I had known and loved only showed himself sporadically on such tunes as album track "Zanzibar"and a tricked-out "The River of Dreams," with an out-of-nowhere middle refrain that had Joel screeching like Little Richard crossed with James Brown.

Otherwise, he seemed like the best, most successful lounge singer ever (and not in the bad Bill Murray way) crossed with a congenial comedian, joking about everything from how the last time he was in this area, he was in rehab, to the irony of writing such love songs as "Just the Way You Are" and "She's Always a Woman" to ex-wives, who now benefit greatly monetarily from those songs.

And while he's far from the worst pop singer ever (there are several names that I can think of ahead of him, but I'm not drunk enough to actually commit them in print), Joel's ability to sustain notes is almost completely gone and by the time he got to the inevitable show closer, "Piano Man," 90 minutes later, he was struggling to sing.

Conversely, the next night Matchbox Twenty played the same venue (the opening ceremonies concluded with Martina McBride on Valentine's Day) and 90 minutes into the show, it was clear that Rob Thomas and company were just getting warmed up. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the bio for the band's 2007 "Exile on Mainstream" greatest hits collection).

The difference between the two evenings was startling. The collective age of the audience dropped by about 20 years for MB20, for one thing and this crowd was on its feet before the band ever hit the stage.

The last time I saw MB20 was at either Staples or Madison Square Garden several years ago and the band clearly didn't know how to make use of such a large space Thomas mainly sat at the piano or stood nailed to one spot on the floor. On Friday, he used every inch of the stage, roaming from side to side, connecting with the audience. He danced, albeit a little awkwardly, even shimmied a little, much to the delight of the women in the crowd. The transformation was welcome.

Despite some technical difficulties, including guitarist Kyle Cook losing full power at several points, the band kept in good humor and stayed loose, which led to a fun, party vibe for the night. Plus, played live, many of the songs, including "Real World" and "3 A.M." sounded much more muscular and vibrant than on record. A highlight was "Bright Lights," which morphed into the Beatles' "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," with Thomas, Cook and guitarist Paul Doucette trading off lead vocals.

 

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