BILLY JOEL – The Piano Man Serenades The Masses At Hollywood’s Hard Rock Live

February 1, 2023, 9 months ago

Words by Jonathan Smith | Photos by Joel Barrios

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In the rock music realm, it’s often said that it is better to burn out than fade away, but some stars have a way of doing neither well into their golden years. Case and point, solo artist and master of the 88 keys himself Billy Joel, who has been in the business in various capacities for the better part of 60 years and is still failing to lose steam on the live circuit at the ripe age of 73. Granted, it’s been roughly 30 years since the release of a studio album of original rock/pop material and more than 20 since his auspicious foray into classical compositions “Fantasies & Delusions”, but this favorite son of The Big Apple has had a flair for continuing to keep hit anthems that were originally unveiled during the ‘70s and ‘80s that has continued to pay dividends on stage up until the present day. Now coming up on a year and a half since his concert touring days resumed post-lockdown, South Floridians would congregate on January 27 at the always inviting and remarkable sounding Hard Rock Live theater in the Hollywood Guitar Hotel, to witness The Piano Man light up the stage yet again, for an completely sold-out night of riveting and nostalgic music.

True to form, Joel proved a highly engaging and boisterous impresario as he worked his way through a grueling almost 3-hour set of vintage bangers, taking many an occasion to accent the event with interludes of humorous banter and witty anecdotes about the backgrounds of his expansive repertoire. Naturally a concert of this scope is impacted as much by the proficiency of its support musicians, and at key points the names of fellow keyboardist Dave Rosenthal, guitarist Tommy Byrnes and saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Rivera were among those in the 8-piece arrangement to be given a shout out for their contributions, the latter delivering a rousing display on hit ballad “Just The Way You Are” to thunderous applause. Likewise, two highly auspicious guest vocal slots were knocked out of the park by elite multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Crystal Taliefero-Partt on “New York State of Mind” and rendition of “The River Of Dreams” – including an interlude of “River Deep Mountain High”, while guitarist Mike Delguidice provided his haunting tenor to a lustrous performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”.

The lion’s share of this classic rock extravaganza was a dual-course spectacle of ‘70s nostalgia with a fresh sense of zeal that reminded all in attendance that this veteran star originally walked tall alongside the likes of Meatloaf, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. Yet in contrast to the aforementioned rock legends, Joel’s craft had a recurring classical tinge to it that seemed to touch even his most accessible entries. The opening performance of late-‘70s hit “My Life” was itself preceded by an original arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 choral theme “Ode To Joy”, an appropriate overture to the show that would follow. Nipping closely on its heels was early ‘80s classic “Pressure”, sporting that unmistakably classically-informed recurring melody between Joel’s energy-infused verses and choruses. Yet at other times the influence of 18th century common practices were a bit more subtle, with the kinetic character of “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “An Innocent Man” showcasing Joel’s ability to bring a sense of intricacy to radio-oriented simplicity, the latter performance also seeing the iconic solo artist taking a few self-deprecating jabs at his aging voice despite his delivery being quite becoming of artists 40 years his junior.

The level of eclecticism that was along for the ride through this veritable journey back into the golden age of rock music was at least as high as the corresponding quality of the delivery, hitting just about every known stylistic tangent in the genre’s history. A festive, sing-along occasion was had on the folksy mid-‘70s romp with a side-order of progressive rock “The Entertainer” (which say keyboardist Dave Rosenthal steal a significant amount of the show), while the latter-day interlude into soul and gospel territory that was 1993’s “The River Of Dreams” received an equally enthusiastic audience response. The energy level was dangerously close to explosive territory with upbeat bangers like “Only The Good Die Young” and the guitar-dominated punch of “Sometimes A Fantasy” as the masses clapped and sang along, though the zenith would be reserved for the expansive encore performance, which included such obligatory and more rocking entries as “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” and “Uptown Girl” bringing down the house, though the closing rendition of “You May Be Right” featuring a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock And Roll” – also sang by DelGuicide, likely caused a lot of hoarse voices the next day.

It’s a foregone conclusion that with 22 years now in the rearview since Billy Joel’s last solo studio venture that the prospects of new original material creeping into his headlining arena tour is quite low, but with such an expansive body of work in tow and a new generation now becoming acquainted with the classics, there is sure to be no shortage of golden moments to be had in the coming months for this classic rock mainstay and his legions of fans. The cliché of the older guard living off the glory of their past may hold true here to some degree, but the feeling of elation and euphoria that is routinely achieved by this elder statesman of the rock elite as he continues to trot out the same feats of compositional achievement were as undeniable this past Friday as they have been since Joel’s career took off. Like a fine wine, the show just seems to continually get better with age, and with none of his energy and vocal quality disappearing with the ongoing march of time to boot. 

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