Billy Joel blew the roof off Chase Field on Saturday, March 9, at his first stadium show in Arizona.
But to be fair, the roof was already off.
This was also the Entertainer’s first show in Phoenix since 2014, so the place was packed with more than 50,000 fans. There had been an excitement around town all day; radio stations played Billy Joel songs back-to-back, and even the electronic ADOT signs read, “Use a seat belt, we love you just the way you are.”
The stage was set up in what’s usually left field. A piano sat shiny in plain sight, letting veteran showgoers know it would not be rising from the depths like the usual routine over at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The show was slated for 8 p.m., but signs of the concert even beginning didn’t start till 8:30 p.m.
That’s when Joel and his band took the stage, almost out of nowhere, and started big with, well, "Big Shot." People who were seated roared, but many were still stuck in line for a beer. You wouldn’t think, but "Big Shot" was an amazing opener: Hard on the chorus, easy to sing along to, and the “white hot spotlight” resulted in some actual white-hot spotlights on the crowd. Blinding, but also thrilling.
That production was immediately followed by “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” the concluding track on 1976’s Turnstiles. It was an interesting choice; over five minutes, kind of a deep pull, and backed by images of a post-apocalyptic New York City on stage. Whether it was a statement on the times, it was definitely a statement on the kind of show we were about to get — one for beyond-the-radio-hits fans.
“I had more songs than I had hits,” he said a number of times, and even gave the crowd the chance to pick the next track. Chase Field chose “The Longest Time” as the third song, taking it up to Innocent Man. But always with that New Yorker wit, Joel concluded the single with, “And then we got divorced, so what the hell do I know?”
Joel of course mentioned the time he opened for Linda Ronstadt at Celebrity Theatre, which he always does, not that we're complaining. Joel recounted how, as we know, the stage rotates at Celebrity, and how he kept seeing the same 1970s faces. “There’s that guy with the mustache again.” At Chase, his piano slowly rotated as well, which he said would be just about the extent of the special effects.
The show went on to have some obvious hits, pretty good deep cuts, and well-placed (and received) covers.
The audience chose "Vienna" off The Stranger (losing to "Just the Way You Are"), Joel played "Movin' Out," and the crowd chose "Zanzibar" over "Big Man on Mulberry Street" (thankfully, as it gave trumpeter Carl Fischer a chance to nail us with two solos during the 52nd Street song).
Fisher was just one of Joel’s impressive band members. The rest included David Rosenthal on keys, Chuck Burgi on drums, Tommy Byrnes on guitar, Mark Rivera on sax, Andrew Cichon on bass, vocalist Michael DelGuidice on guitar, and percussionist (and just about everything else) Crystal Taliefero.
People were finally settled by the quieter “And So It Goes,” and excited to hear the factory-themed intro to "Allentown." All were ready to sing loud for “New York State of Mind,” and during the tune, a breeze picked up, dropping the temperature a few degrees, which lingered for several songs. It was like New York was there for part of the show. “I say New York state of mind,” Joel said, “but I’ve been spending my winters in Florida.”
That’s about when the covers started. Joel first took a shot at Elton John’s “Your Song” — mocking the lyrics. “You don’t have much money?” he says, pausing. “Bullshit.” That crack was followed by “She's Always a Woman,” which concluded with the quip, “and then we got divorced.”
At this point Joel stepped away from the piano to take on a guitar. He began explaining how their roadie was from Phoenix, and he was going to perform a song — a religious song. “If you don’t like it, you can boo him right off the stage.”
A few of us knew what was about to happen. Out comes Chainsaw, Joel’s longtime roadie, to perform AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" to uproarious applause and absolute participation. It was done with the spot-on skill of someone who’s really good at karaoke. That’s not a shot: Everyone’s hair felt a little blown back after.
Other covers included a random insertion of The Eagles' “Take It Easy” (this crowd goes nuts for mention of "Standin' on the corner in Winslow, Arizona"), a beautiful performance of “Nessun dorma” by the guitarist DelGuidice (followed by a stadium-wide “Happy Birthday” since it was, in fact, his big day), and a little bit of Led Zeppelin.
"Piano Man" concluded the set, complete with Joel’s big U-lock-looking harmonica holder. And whether you’re a fan of this big number, the crowd is left to sing the last run at the chorus, and it is emotional. Many, which is to say thousands, had their phone’s flashlight lit and waving, which was pretty stunning across the now-dark stadium.
“We Didn't Start the Fire” lit up the encore portion of the show, flickering each pop-culture reference on the large screens. This was followed by “Uptown Girl” — an obvious must for this part of the show.
But it was the last two songs — both off 1980’s Glass Houses — that brought it back to the earlier days. “It's Still Rock and Roll to Me” started with its recognizably plunky intro, and was happily received (as was the video of a young Joel in his skinny white tie on the jumbo).
It was a pretty safe bet “Captain Jack” was going to finish this sucker off. People were screaming it out, and there was the stadium’s signature whiskey-sour cocktail of the same name floating around in people’s hands. But, in another word, psych.
The sound of glass breaking rang out. People lost it.
“You May Be Right” came in hot. Everyone started dancing and doing that point-shouting thing people do at concerts. For four minutes, it was one big party.
The team exited the stage, and Joel lingered. So did we. He waved, walking backward, and looking humble. Maybe a few thought he was going to say his old line, that closer he once said to attendees at the end of every performance — “Don't take any shit from anybody.” — but he didn’t.
And it was over, with more than 50,000 people then needing to get the hell out of there. But there were smiles everywhere, and people were singing random parts of songs from the show and talking excitedly (drunkenly) about what just happened.
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There’s been the notion Joel’s singing isn’t what it used to be, and to some degree that has to be true. But the 69-year-old’s words sure filled that ballpark. His voice is still there, and it’s apparent on songs like "Movin' Out" and yes, "Piano Man." And his piano playing? That’s still intact, as is his mic stand twirling.
While Billy Joel is known as the Piano Man, the show as a whole gave people way more opportunities to boogie down versus sit and hum. The setlist, curated both by Joel and the audience, was a fun rundown of old ‘70s and ‘80s dance-and-clap-alongs, and people certainly took advantage.
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
The Longest Time
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
And So It Goes
New York State of Mind
Don't Ask Me Why
Your Song (Elton John cover)
She's Always a Woman
Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover)
Only the Good Die Young
The River of Dreams
Take It Easy (Eagles cover)
Nessun dorma (from the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini)
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
We Didn't Start the Fire
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right / Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)