The irony was not lost on Billy Joel. Right after singing “The Entertainer,” which he released in 1974, a particular lyric stuck out. Joel surmised he really didn’t know what he was talking about when he wrote these lines:
But I know the game
You’ll forget my name
And I won’t be here in another year
If I don’t stay on the charts
“Here I am, playing at Fenway Park, and I haven’t been on the charts for 22 years,” Joel said to a sold-out audience, marking the second time he has played the ballpark since last year.
Indeed, the beloved piano man has had the last laugh in a long career he has handled on his own terms. He released his last studio album of pop songs, “River of Dreams,” in 1993. But he packed Fenway not only with his hits, of which there are many, but also with a thoughtful cross section of his deep catalog. It was not business as usual for Joel, 66, and it very could have been for someone of his stature.
Instead, Joel seemed downright mellow and even humble — two words he doesn’t typically inspire — as he and his incredibly nimble eight-piece band barreled through more than two hours of hits and misses. (Judging from recent set lists, it seemed Joel was adamant to ditch the script and dust off some surprises, including “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “The Longest Time.”)
Here’s the truth about Billy Joel: You can claim you don’t care for his music, that you don’t own a single album. But a funny thing happens when you see him in concert — you probably know nearly 80 percent of the songs. He’s simply part of the fabric of pop music, and some of his greatest moments are holding up surprisingly well.
It was futile to resist the rousing sing-alongs of the opening “Big Shot,” “My Life,” “Uptown Girl,” and the two-hanky ballad “She’s Always a Woman.” Early in the set Joel set a somber but heartfelt tone as he addressed hard economic times (“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ ”) and solidarity in the face of war (“Goodnight Saigon”). It was moving when US servicemen and women flanked Joel and his band during the latter.
Joel pretended to pant (or maybe that was in earnest) before taking on the epic sweep of “Piano Man.” With a harmonica around his neck, he and the band dropped out entirely for the last verse, letting the audience roar the refrain that reflected why they had come: “Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody/ And you got us feeling alright.”
Joel’s influence was apparent in the opening set from power-pop band Bleachers. Like Joel, frontman Jack Antonoff writes big, anthem choruses you can — and want to — sing within two bars.
At: Fenway Park, Thursday
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