The first of a two-night double header of concerts at the Cleveland Indians’ home, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel really hit one out of the park on Friday night. Progressive Field hosted both Joel and Country star Luke Bryan over the weekend on the heels of the All-Star Break which saw, thankfully, the American League gaining home field advantage in what may see a return of the Fall Classic to the south shores of Lake Erie yet again this October.
The World Series is still a long while away and, in the meantime, 35,000+ fans crammed into (and onto) the field at the corner of Carnegie and East Ninth to hear the Piano Man belt out a slew of his greatest hits as well as a few unexpected deep cuts from his forty-five year career.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness opened for Joel, providing a keyboard-infused set of tunes that warmed the crowd up for the main event. After a thirty-minute set, McMahon left the stage and about two bells later Joel came out.
Starting with a quick nod to Beethoven and his “Ode to Joy,” Joel started off the evening with “My Life,” and then segued into the pop paranoia of “Pressure.” He then offered up “The Entertainer” as a quick three up/three out. Sitting behind a swiveling grand piano, Joel held a flyswatter and would wave it like a baton. Every so often he’d whack a fly that landed on him or his piano; looking like a mad Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra while doing so.
Clearly, the evening was going to be a showcase of the multitude of hits that Joel has given us since the mid-1970s. Playing off the baseball vibe that his right field-placed stage was giving, he offered us a “fielder’s choice.” Asking the crowd what they wanted to hear, either the title track to the 1983 album An Innocent Man, or the doo-wop homage “The Longest Time,” the audience overwhelmingly chose the latter of the two. At a second at-bat, he threw another changeup: “Vienna” or “Just The Way You Are.” Surprisingly, the crowd went with “Vienna” over the Grammy-winning smash.
After the requisite offering of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Joel returned to greatest hits territory with a veritable jog through his discography. Surprisingly, many of the tunes you’ve expected to hear at a BJ concert were missing from this tour’s setlist: Nowhere to be found was “Goodnight, Saigon,” his ode to the Viet Nam experience. Nor was “Lullabye” from 1994’s River of Dreams, a perennial fave.
Interestingly, many deeper cuts made this edition’s set. Quipping that “No Man’s Land” wasn’t a hit, he was going to “try and get through it anyway.” Released on 1994’s River of Dreams, the tune seems more prescient now than when it was first recorded almost twenty-five years ago. “Zanzibar,” from 1978’s 52nd Street, was also a surprise addition.
Originally released (and somewhat scandalous at the time) on 1980’s Glass Houses, “Sometimes a Fantasy” was perhaps the highlight of the evening for the diehards; it’s always a treat to hear a few “unsafe” songs that the audience may not know as well as the tunes that got all the radio airplay. In that regard, Joel really went out of his way to make sure the fans got a smattering of his discography.
But, the night was ruled by the big ones and he didn’t fail it that regard either. Long-time horn player Mark Rivera delighted on “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Even though he didn’t play the sax parts on the album bearing the seven-plus minute “Scenes,” he’s been with Joel since 1982 and is most-closely related to the iconic tune.
Most of the middle years of Joel’s career were well-represented but the latter years and the albums Storm Front and The Bridge seemed to be missing from the night’s offerings completely. “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” a tongue-twister of a jawbreaker, was the only tune from Storm Front, but it was served up well. Not one tune from The Bridge made the cut.
However, opera king Puccini made an appearance. “Nessun Dorma,” more at home at Severance Hall than a baseball field, was belted out with aplomb by backup vocalist Mike DelGuidice, who took center stage and the mic duties for this serenely out-of-place (but perfect addition to the night) song.
Wrapping up with, what else?, “Piano Man,” Joel and company came back out for a six-song encore. Offering up “We Didn’t Start the Fire,””Uptown Girl,” It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” Big Shot,””Only the Good Die Young” and finally,”You May Be Right” the piano man left the North Coast smiling as the almost forty-thousand strong crowd ambled out of Progressive Field and into the streets.