Five years ago, about six weeks after HitFix launched, I reviewed a Billy Joel concert at the opening of a new venue at Agua Caliente Casino in Palm Springs.
Growing up, I was a massive Joel fan. His had been one of my first concerts and his music served as a soundtrack for much of my youth, as it did for millions of people. But the show I saw that day in February 2009 was a poor facsimile to the many great Joel concerts I’d seen over the years. I said as much, as well as commented that his ability to sustain notes that night was shot and he seemed to be going through the motions.
Then a funny thing happened. I figured since HitFix was still a little baby (editorially, it was just me, Gregory Ellwood, Dan Fienberg and Drew McWeeny), very few people would see the review. That was pretty naive (okay, idiotic) given a little something called Google.
A few days after my review ran (you can read it here), I got an email from Joel’s publicist, saying she was sorry the show had disappointed me. We’d known each other since I’d been at Billboard, where I’d enjoyed a nice, professional relationship with Joel, who was always incredibly generous about hopping on the phone with me whenever I needed him for a story.
Then, shockingly, I got an email from Joel. He took me to task for some of the things I wrote and went on to explain why he was having an off night. I’ve never written about the emails since I considered them private and don’t want to go into the details here, but for about a week, he and I had an almost daily exchange about the show, my review and his (rightful) disappointment about my commenting on how much older he looked since that had nothing to do with his performance (even though he joked about it on stage). The emails served as illuminating insight into what it’s like to be up on stage when a show isn’t going well or a performer is having an off night. The emails left me with a different perspective and it changed how I write reviews.
Still, I felt sad that someone whose music had meant so much to me had seemingly, even if for just that one show, lost his joy in performing. Then I saw Joel perform “Miami 2017” on the televised Hurricane Sandy benefit in November 2012 and it was ferocious and energetic and everything that had made me love him in the first place. I remember emailing Joel’s publicist with great glee, declaring that he was back.
As presumptive and grandiose as my email to her may have been (for all I know, he was “back” the night after I saw the off show), it came from a place of true joy. His Sandy performance filled me with delight as a fan and it made me realize that those investments we make in artists when we are young are substantial and formative and they stick with us, even if our musical tastes change. I remember my late Billboard editor, Timothy White, came up to my desk one day while a number of us were discussing songs we loved growing up, many of them from one-hit wonders and songs that we laughed about loving back then, and he said, “The songs of our youth are sacred and aren’t to be trifled with.” So true. The emotional tether we develop to those songs remains strong and unbreakable as we grow older.
Last night (27), I went to see Joel at the Hollywood Bowl, in the last of his three sell-outs there. Surprisingly, the run marked the first time he’d ever played the Bowl.
Though he’s so associated with New York, Joel also has a rich history with Los Angeles, including playing at the Troubadour in the early ‘70s, and writing “Piano Man” about playing in a bar at the corner of Wilshire and Western. He peppered the evening with stories of his time here. But mainly he sang and he played songs reaching back to his first solo album, 1971’s “Cold Spring Harbor.”
He ran through a number of hits, but also dived deep into the catalog with such tunes as “Glass House’s” driving “All For Leyna” and “The Nylon Curtain’s” wistful “Where’s The Orchestra.” While Joel stayed true to most of the recorded arrangements, he stretched out on cuts like “Zanzibar,” veering into jazz territory as he and trumpeter Carl Fischer built on the trumpet ending played by Freddie Hubbard on the “52nd Street” cut or, much to the thrill of the audience, during “River of Dreams,” he burst into a jubilant “A Hard Day’s Night” by his beloved Beatles, filled with glorious, layered harmonies from him and his eight bandmates.
More importantly, his delight was evident. Even as he sang songs he’d performed thousands of times, there was no sense that he was phoning it in. He was as present as I remember him being in all the shows I saw growing up. He remarked a number of times on what a “great job” he had, marveling that, at 65, he had been at it for 50 years.
The show was deeply satisfying: the songs have held up and his often-biting delivery was as undiminished as ever, as was his voice. Whatever issues he had the night I saw him in 2009 were long resolved.
The Bowl shows seem to be part of a bigger Joel renaissance. In January, he started an open-ended residency at Madison Square Garden where he’ll play once a month for the foreseeable future. His summer tour includes dates at Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and and D.C.’s Nationals Park, not bad for a guy, who, as he says, hasn’t had a hit in more than 20 years — his last pop album was 1993’s “River of Dreams.”
I don’t know how Joel reignited the spark that had clearly gone out when I saw him in 2009, I’m just glad he did.