Yesterday I went to see Billy Joel in DC. This was my second time seeing him — I had previously seen him at the Verizon Center in 2006. I wanted to share the set-list as well as some of my thoughts, so I put together this article. Below is a journal of my day, with ongoing evaluations of the performance and experience. At the end is an overall review of the show and my thoughts on Billy Joel as a performer these days.
- 10:45 AM – Wake up, shower, and sit down at the computer. Time to decide if I’m going to the concert or not. I pull up StubHub. Tickets are $85. That’s steep, but not completely outrageous. I’ve been a Billy Joel fan since I was a toddler, so I decide I have to make it happen. I buy and print the ticket.
- 1:30 PM – I overeat a bit during lunch and get some acid reflux. This is miserable… At this point I’m wishing I hadn’t decided to buy the ticket.
- 3:30 PM – My wife gets home from her weekend away for a friend’s wedding. I’m feeling 50% better, but still on the fence about going.
- 5:30 PM – It’s now or never. I decide I’m feeling well enough that I don’t want to miss out.
- 6:30 PM – I’m at the Metro Station. (I thought about taking the new Silver Line, which literally opened today, but decide it would be a circus, and I’m pushing my timing a little bit; the ticket says the show starts at 8:00.)
- 7:30 PM – I get to the stadium. I’m feeling a lot better, so I’m glad I decided to come.
- 7:45 PM – I find my seat. Talk about nosebleeds.
- 7:55 PM – I check Facebook on my phone, and apparently some of my good friends are here! We swap texts and agree to meet up before the concert ends.
- 8:15 PM – The speakers and lights go down. It’s showtime!
- 8:16 PM – Wait, Gavin DeGraw? There’s an opener for the show?
- 8:17 PM – Yep, that’s definitely not Billy Joel. I guess I’m listening to Gavin DeGraw for the next half hour.
- 8:30 PM – I decide to make a run to the merch stand. Lots of good T-shirts, but nothing is even close to reasonably priced. The Billy Joel hat is tempting… until I remember that it’s $40 and I wear hats like ten times a year.
- 8:45 PM – Gavin finishes his set. Pretty good show, but nothing mind-blowing, and not what I was here to listen to. I’m ready for Billy!
- 8:50 PM – I meet up with my friends and find a spot at the standing bar that’s a WAY better view. Dead center!
- 8:58 PM – The signs said “SOLD OUT,” and this place is PACKED.
- 9:02 PM – The speakers and lights go down… again. Let’s hope there’s not another surprise opener.
- 9:03 PM – Nope! It’s Billy! The speakers play him in with his beautiful “Elegy.” He’s looking great (albeit much older than I remember) and wearing a suit!
- 9:04 PM – He has a guitar and jumps right into the opener, “A Matter of Trust.” Not a personal favorite, but the band is scorching and Billy’s voice sounds great. Good start.
- 9:07 PM – “Pressure” – The second song gives me my first chills moment of the night when Billy rips into the iconic keyboard part for the intro of the song.
- 9:12 PM – He welcomes us and gives an intro to the next song, saying it’s from 1974 (so it’s off Streetlife Serenade, and I immediately know what’s coming because there’s only one song from Serenade he frequently plays at concerts), then makes a remark about how “the song ended up being wrong” — I’m not sure what he means by this, but he charges into “The Entertainer” headlong. It’s as good as ever, and I particularly love the verse that has a cool piano background part.
- 9:17 PM – After “Entertainer,” he warns us that he doesn’t often sing the next song because his aged vocals can’t hit the high parts like they used to be able to, but he’s going to try anyways. He and the band start “An Innocent Man,” a pleasant surprise. Not enough people are snapping along! Come on, crowd!
- 9:20 PM – For a 65 year old, he’s hitting those notes quite well!
- 9:24 PM – “Zanzibar” – It’s never been one of my favorites, and I see it pop up on almost every set-list I read online, but damn if that trumpet part by Carl Fischer isn’t incredible. (Theory: Billy often includes this one to give his voice a couple minutes of rest, though that makes it a weird choice to come third.)
- 9:31 PM – “New York State of Mind” – This has always been one of his best live songs. Its simplicity and vocal style — requiring expressiveness ahead of vocal prowess — along with an ending that allows for improvisation, make it a great live cut. This definitely holds true tonight.
- 9:37 PM – Tonigh’ts “NYSoM” outro includes a riff from “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
- 9:38 PM – When Billy came out to start the show, he was holding a plastic pink flyswatter. He keeps messing with it after every song, slapping his piano and swinging it at bugs. After “NYSoM” he mentions the bugs being bad, and swings the flyswatter around for several seconds. Not sure what the deal is.
- 9:39 PM – Billy notes the nearby Chesepeake Bay, and launches into “Downeaster Alexa.” This is another song that may not be a huge favorite of mine in its studio recording, but it feels vastly improved as a live track, bursting with energy.
- 9:41 PM – For good measure, guitarist Tommy Byrnes throws in a searing guitar solo. Fantastic.
- 9:44 PM – He precedes the next song with “One! Two! One-two-three-four!” and I know before it even starts that it’s “Movin’ Out.” This is one of his best songs, and it plays well to the crowd, which gets seriously fired up.
- 9:47 PM – The band barely pauses after the final notes of “Movin’ Out” before blasting helicopter sounds over the loudspeakers. Yep, “Goodnight Saigon.” Most of the crowd seems confused — I guess this isn’t a popular one.
- 9:49 PM – Joel leads out some Vietnam Veterans on to the stage, who join arms and sing the chorus (“…we’d all go down together”). The crowd gives them a standing ovation. There are chills moments, and there are chills moments, and this is definitely the latter. I’m choking up… it’s beautiful.
- 9:55 PM – After shaking hands with all the vets and joining the crowd in applause, Joel jumps into “Allentown.” It is solid as it always is.
- 10:00 PM – The band plays the background for the intro to “My Life,” but Billy hesitates by playing the piano line for “Ode to Joy” instead of the intro.
- 10:05 PM – Billy invites us to sing along with the next song… “if we can.” Again, I’m not sure exactly what he means by this. He plays “She’s Always a Woman,” pretty as ever. The camera spends the next several minutes picking out attractive twenty-something women in the lawn seats.
- 10:10 PM – He warns us that the next song has “one of the worst melodies I ever wrote,” and asks us to sing along with this one, too, because if he misses one word he’ll be off the rest of the song. It’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” of course. Very cool twist: The big screen is showing pictures of each of the things mentioned by the song as the song goes. I feel like this must have been a challenge to pull off. The timing is really good.
- 10:11 PM – For some reason, the older lady in front of me has decided to stand up and dance to only this song, slightly blocking my view.
- 10:15 PM – The band’s roadie Chainsaw comes up to give Billy’s vocal chords a break, and Billy makes the usual joke about the next song being “a religious one.” “Highway to Hell.” Chainsaw and the band are fantastic. Still… This was kind of funny the first time I saw it — but that was eight years ago. I think it’s time to try a different song or gimmick for the “intermission.”
- 10:20 PM – “Don’t Ask Me Why” – This is one of my favorite Billy Joel songs, but I always feel a little disappointed when I hear a live version. I think the heavy production of the live show and Billy’s less-than-limber vocals suck a bit of the vivacity of the 1980 studio version.
- 10:24 PM – Red and white lights come on, which repeat concert-goers know is a sign that “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is next. This is one of my absolute favorite songs, and it’s completely brilliant tonight. This is the show’s best song yet, with at least three moments that give me chills, my favorite being the “sweet romantic nights” band interlude.
- 10:32 PM – The crowd is going nuts after that. I think we’re in the home stretch of pre-encore set. Billy pauses only a few seconds before kicking off into “River of Dreams.” I’m kind of tired of this song, but the crowd remains fired up by it. Crystal Taliefero is killing it on the bongos (and is looking about 15 years younger than her age of 50, by the way).
- 10:35 PM – I forgot how good that piano solo is. It’s one of my favorites.
- 10:36 PM – Billy and the band often play about a minute of a cover song after that extended pause in “River.” Tonight, it’s “Summer in the City” — a perfect fit for the scorching evening.
- 10:39 PM – It’s that time. Billy plays the first few piano notes, and the crowd goes wild. They know what’s coming. He puts on his harmonica harness. Billy drags it out by playing little piano riffs (from things like the “Looney Tunes” song) for about two minutes. He then jokes, as if a member of the crowd, “Just play the damn thing already!” And so he does, going into “Piano Man” and sounding great.
- 10:45 PM – He has us sing the last chorus for him. It’s a nice moment.
- 10:47 PM – That’s the end of the main set. The lights go out and Joel and the band possibly walk off stage (impossible to see from where I am) in the fakest ending of all time.
- 10:49 PM – A minute later, the lights come back on and it’s onto the encore. He opens the encore with “Uptown Girl,” hamming it up with hand motions and poses. You can tell he doesn’t love the song.
- 10:53 PM – Next up is “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me”, which surprises me because there a couple others I’m expecting. I guess this is going to be a long encore! This version of “Still R’n’R” isn’t the smoothest version I’ve heard (I still love the Millennium Concert version), but it sounds good.
- 10:56 PM – “Big Shot” – Another bonus on the long encore. Joel continues hamming it up, putting on a backwards Nats cap when he gets to the pseudo-rap part of the song, and doing the “one more? two more? six more?” routine I’ve mostly seen in older concerts.
- 11:01 PM – Glass shatters. Yep, it’s my favorite live Billy Joel song, “You May Be Right,” and it sounds absolutely fantastic. The band doesn’t seem tired at all, despite being two hours into the show — they’re tearing into it. I love how the live arrangement spices up the end of the song, sending it out with a blast of energy.
- 11:06 PM – “Only the Good Die Young” – I assume that this will be the last song, and the extended outro seems to confirm this. It’s one of his better live songs, with that sax riff really driving the song.
- 11:12 PM – It’s over! Billy thanks us, smiling like he means it (and given how many people were in attendance, it might be his wallet speaking), then walks off stage.
- 11:13 PM – It starts raining within a minute of Billy walking off stage. Even the sky is sad it’s over.
- 11:15 PM – I meet up with my friends, who offer to drive me to a less busy Metro station. We get stuck in a parking garage and witness some post-concert road rage. But we all enjoyed the concert too much to be down about the long wait to get out. I buy a knock-off T-shirt for $15 on the way out of the parking garage.
- 2:15 AM – Finally I make it home. Long night, good show. I’m definitely glad I went, and I would happily see him again. Yet, I don’t feel the urge that I HAVE to see him again. See the next section for more thoughts on this.
If an A+ is the best show I could have realistically expected, and an F is the worst show I could have expected, I give the concert a B.
First, the tallies in the “pros” column: Billy’s voice still sounds pretty good, the band is phenomenal and seems to really care about giving a good show, and the entire production is well-done. Things you might take for granted — a lack of technical bugs, good lights, and perfect acoustics — are executed brilliantly.
I also want to give a shout out to the mixing. This might have been the best mixing I’ve ever heard at a concert — you can tell Billy works with the best pros. No single instrument was too loud, and you can always hear all of the important parts of every song. Billy’s voice is crystal clear, the entire presentation is one of consummate professionalism.
The show went longer than I expected, and I’m not going to complain about the set list, even if it wasn’t stacked with my personal favorites.
Now, the “cons”: The entire show feels over-rehearsed and impersonal. I guess it’s hard to capture any sort of intimacy in the stadium setting, but the banter between songs was almost entirely absent. There were no real surprises or bowl-you-over chills moments, with one exception: The vets coming on stage for “Goodnight Saigon.”
There was no mention of Billy’s recently passed mom (or a rendition of “Rosalinda’s Eyes”), nor was any moment much of a surprise or a unique treat (other than Billy tackling the high parts of “An Innocent Man” on his own).
But what can you expect? The guy is 65 and has been playing in rock bands for literally half a century. His product is polished and refined, but I suspect his days of taking risks or exploring crevices of his discography are mostly behind him. The technical overhead involved with throwing a random song into a set — think of the mixing, the lights, the big screens, etc. — probably outweighs the fun of the spontaneity.
This is why I’d be thrilled to see Billy again, but I’d also probably be okay if this was my last show. I know what I’m getting myself into when I by a ticket: A professional, great performance with well-polished product.
Now if I ever get a chance to see him without a backing band or at a small venue… I’d be all up on that. But his show as it currently stands in big concerts is a known, beloved quantity.