Billy Joel acknowledged the (green) monster in the room early on during his sold-out show at Fenway Park on Wednesday: “I don’t have anything new. It’s the same old [expletive].” He then took a swipe at bands who feature their new material live, as if there’s no other legitimate model for a concert than that of the nostalgia act.
In the 1980s and ’90s, when he was still busy authoring a one-man jukebox of hits amounting to an oeuvre as accomplished as any other in pop, Billy Joel concerts were high-energy, tightly choreographed affairs. They were carefully paced for maximum crowd pleasure, but a bit airtight.
Now they’re something different — an attractively loose, conversational sort of stadium pop. For much of this generous show’s first hour he ambled casually through a multiple-choice set list, pausing to quiz the audience for its selection among lesser-known riches in his catalog.
The deeper cuts shone brightly. “All for Leyna” rocked convincingly. “The Entertainer,” with its mix of acoustic guitar and weirdo synths, landed crisply. “Sometimes a Fantasy” was a highly charged sample of Joel’s manic, dawn-of-the-’80s rock moment. And a lockstep sequence at the show’s finale proved again he’s capable of blowing the doors down with his hits any time he wants. It was nothing but fun.
Joel led a nine-piece band of seasoned, shape-shifting musicians. But his admirable ease at the helm also led to many partially formed moments, like semi-committed doodles on Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”) and Henley (“The Boys of Summer”), which Joel waved off after a verse or two and a chorus.
These were complemented by full-blown covers of obvious hits by AC/DC, the Beatles, and the Eagles. More winningly, Mike DelGuidice, in a duet with Joel, belted out the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma” — maybe the most well-known slice of the opera canon — no doubt tingling spines way up in the rafters.
One sensed Joel striving to mix things up in lieu of any new material. He might have opted to loosen up some arrangements and allow the band to, say, cook for a bit on the frenzied outro of “Sometimes a Fantasy.” Or given Tommy Byrnes a few extra measures on his guitar solo in “Big Shot,” given that his snarling fills elsewhere sounded so good. Instead it was “Take It Easy.”
Joel has excelled when openly emulating other musicians. For a solo artist who’s almost a one-man Brill Building, Joel has always been closely aligned with his influences. He has a fantastic ear and an abundance of craft, even if he’s occasionally more clever than inspired. “Glass Houses” is largely a New Wave effort; “An Innocent Man” is of course all doo-wop and pre-Beatles pop. Sometimes he winks at the situation. In “New York State of Mind” he sings that he’s “out of touch with the rhythm and blues” while doing Ray-Charles-on-the-Hudson. He suggests he may be “lost in let’s remember” at the top of “Keepin’ the Faith.” It’s all in good fun.
When introducing his own songs on Wednesday, Joel took care to identify each as either a “hit single” or “just an album cut,” almost apologizing for the latter. It was as if, after all these decades, he didn’t quite trust the audience to go with him if he wandered too far astray.
But I’m pretty sure they would. And he’s earned the right.
At Fenway Park, WednesdayJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at Jeremy@jeremyd goodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.