Billy Joel has got himself quite the nice little semi-retirement. His current guiding principle seems to be comfort — both delivering it for his fans (by putting on hit-filled live shows without any new songs to gum up the works) and preserving it for himself (by forgoing long tours in favor of his monthly Madison Square Garden residency). Certainly, much of the appeal of catching Joel at Fenway Park, which he played Friday night for the fifth year running, lies in the cozy familiarity of it all. Yet on this night, Joel had just enough tricks up his sleeve to keep things interesting.
In acknowledgment of his surroundings, Joel walked out to a selection from Randy Newman’s “The Natural” score (“People don’t always write about that when they write about the show,” he remarked later. Heard you loud and clear, William.) After kicking the evening off with “Big Shot” and “My Life,” Joel settled into a more relaxed run heavy on ’70s album cuts. He was in a chatty mood, giving detailed introductions for each song, cracking dry jokes, and idly toying with the flyswatter that was on his piano for some reason. Though Joel had to round the peaks off the occasional high note, his voice has held up remarkably well, and his fleet of backing musicians gave even gentler songs like “Summer, Highland Falls” that little extra, stadium-filling punch. Yet one of the night’s most powerful moments came when the band fell silent for a solo piano rendition of the breathtakingly desolate “And So It Goes.”
Early in the night, Joel paid homage to local rock history with a half-cover of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” but the real tribute came when Peter Wolf (who had just opened for Jimmy Buffett at Fenway the night before) came out to do one of his hits with the J. Geils Band, “Centerfold.” Two songs later, Joel brought out another guest who’d be playing Fenway this weekend: Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, who sang “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Both frontmen brought a welcome shot of high-energy showmanship to their numbers, and Joel matched their energy on his own with a hard-rocking “Sometimes a Fantasy” and the Broadway-ready pizazz of “Only the Good Die Young.”
Joel closed the main set with two of his signature epics. The everyday drama of multi-part suite “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” proved as gripping as ever, while a slightly drowsy “Piano Man” still got the crowd singing and swaying along. For the encore, Joel finally stood up from his trusty spinning piano, donning a guitar for the necessary evil that is “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The lightweight but fun “Uptown Girl” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” gave Joel a chance to show Wolf and Elliott what for, hammily miming his lyrics and rapidly twirling the mic stand before throwing it across the stage. Elliott returned to assist with the nightcap, a snappy “You May Be Right” which briefly detoured into Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”
Another year, another reliably enjoyable Billy Joel Fenway show. Better clear your calendar for next August.
At Fenway Park, Friday nightTerence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley