“Piano Man,” Billy Joel’s 1973 story-song about an evening in the life of a barroom ivory-tickler, tells the tale of a lounge populated by regulars and presided over by the titular performer, who’s there to soundtrack his patrons’ too-brief escape from the everyday. Joel closed his show at Fenway Park on Wednesday night with the song, capping a brisk set that had him running through hits and deep cuts, offering up winking asides, and even presiding over a marriage proposal.
As the rainy daylight faded, Joel opened with the 1978 hit “My Life,” a crisp boogie from his album “52nd Street.” The track is a neat encapsulation of what makes so much of Joel’s work resonate even in 2021, some 28 years after he released his final pop album; it has a propulsive piano line, a soaring chorus, and lyrics that needle ideas of “propriety.”
In the ensuing two-plus hours on Wednesday, Joel whirled through his catalog, taking time to contextualize certain songs with stories about the albums they came from or other ephemera. Hearing him muse about TikTok before launching into the jazz-tinged 1978 track “Zanzibar,” which became an improbable dance soundtrack on the video-sharing service earlier this year, was a bit of a treat; realizing that the harsh conditions of the fishing-community employees chronicled in “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” were still in place three-plus decades later was sobering. “Allentown,” his chugging 1982 portrait of the rapidly fading American Dream with slightly embittered lines about “the promises our teachers gave/if we worked hard, if we behaved” also resonated deeply years later.
The most unexpected moment was probably the snippet of ZZ Top’s posterior ode “Tush,” a tribute to the Texas trio’s late bassist Dusty Hill that was dropped into the middle of Joel’s gospel-tinged 1993 track “The River of Dreams.” Second to that was the popped question, which happened in the front row after Joel broke out the 1982 ups-and-downs-of coupledom rave-up “A Room of Our Own.” (“Nobody knows this song,” he quipped before singing it, “so it’s a good time to take a leak.”) The proposal and its immediate aftermath were soundtracked by a much gentler cut about love and romance, the swaying 1977 ballad “She’s Always a Woman,” and it wound up having a happy ending — although if it hadn’t, there would have surely been no shortage of Joel songs to console the brokenhearted.
The concert, too, had a pretty happy ending, a six-song encore that included the still-potent broadside against social climbers “Big Shot” and the feisty “You May Be Right.” Joel sent the crowd home with “Piano Man,” garnering lusty cheers when he strapped on the harmonica for its opening bars and leading the crowd in a last-call singalong. It was a neat bit of metacommentary that doubled as a way to bring down the house one more time.
At Fenway Park, Wednesday
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.