Review by Billy Joel – The seasoned showman delivers timeless classics and signature jokes

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Walking down to the MCG, I make up names and stories for the people around me. Harry and Norm, who recently finally got married, had their first kiss on a Billy Joel song in the 1970s.

Peter and Kathy are on their first real date night since lockdown, finally free from the duties of babysitting their nephew. Pouty-looking Brendan is 13 and his favorite Billie is Eilish, but his father swears he’ll like her. And me: I heard Billy Joel songs as a kid through my nice uncle, whose record collection taught me everything I know about music. We could all be characters in Billy Joel songs.

It’s Joel’s first visit to these shores since 2008, and his only Australian show as part of the Victorian Government’s Always Live initiative (his other major international success was Foo Fighters, who kicked off work in March in Geelong). For an initiative aimed at reinvigorating the local music scene, that’s a lot of money to invest in American artists, but the tourism angle is working, with more than 40 percent of the 71,000 tickets sold to attendees from the interstate.

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Cynicism aside, there is something magical about the sight of a sold out MCG after the last couple of years. The silver-haired man next to me — a die-hard Joel fan, knows every word to every song — remarks that the atmosphere feels like an AFL grand finale.

Yet, of course, there is another wave of Covid tearing the country apart, despite what we may desperately want to believe. But the mood tonight is one of joy, against a cloudless sky with a single star on a balmy night, La Niña is finally taking a night off after weeks of strange weather. Summer, finally.

Joel is, of course, a seasoned showman — this is the man who’s played one show a month at Madison Square Garden since 2014 (that’s 86 monthly shows so far) and promises to hold that residency as long as demand exists. Tonight, the jokes are all scripted but seem genuine, and so does he.

The 73-year-old jokes about the ‘good news and bad’: that he hasn’t recorded anything new in nearly 30 years, so we’ll hear ‘the same shit you heard last time’. It’s true: Joel is unique in that he essentially shot a set of blockbuster hits over the past three decades. But that’s what people want, and that’s what people get.

There are minor changes to the set for the occasion: Joel accompanies a Waltzing Matilda song and a small Santa hat sits atop the piano. He has also taken his family on tour: his two young daughters, aged 7 and 5, step out to shyly gaze at the huge crowd.

“Joel is unique in that he has essentially shot a set of blockbuster hits over the last three decades” … Billy Joel at the MCG in Melbourne. Photography: Future Publishing/Getty Images

Otherwise, it’s one hit after another over the span of two and a half hours: My Life, The Entertainer, Vienna, She’s Always a Woman, New York State of Mind. They’re timeless classics, and Joel’s voice rings clear as the background changes with him: whimsical prints for Zanzibar, comic-style animation for Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. That line, again — after singing the wildly romantic Just the Way You Are, deadpan, “and then we were divorced.”

Joel’s band members have time to shine with impressive and tantalizing solos. A couple of vocal solos also stand out: a rousing snippet of Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High by longtime backing vocalist Crystal Taliefero, and a staple, rhythm guitarist Mike DelGuidice showcasing his operatic chops on Niente dorma. by Puccini (and then flipping the script with a Led Zeppelin interlude afterwards – the range).

It’s all in good fun and exactly what you’d expect from this kind of blockbuster stadium show. The crowd loves it, although there is clearly a divide between patrons who are willing to get up and boogie, and those who prefer to sit still, thank you very much. Then Joel takes out a harmonica and a woman behind me stands up, hands outstretched like a messiah, looking around her repeating “here he is.” And there it was.

An encore includes the tongue twister We Didn’t Start the Fire and a duet by Uptown Girl with opening act Tina Arena. The night has now fallen, illuminated by the glitter of the lights of the telephones.

I can’t help but smile, walking back to town afterwards, when I think of the line in Piano Man: “that’s a good crowd for a Saturday”, and a moment later: “it’s me who came to see to forget for a while the life.” There’s still a lot to worry about in the world, but nights like this make everything seem a little more bearable for just a little while.

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