One was a Grammy award-winning radio hit. The other, a deep track off the same album that was never released as a single.
Those were the two songs the 20,000 fans attending Billy Joel’s concert at the Vivint Smart Home Arena on Wednesday night were given to choose from. It was one of several either/or scenarios – or fielder’s choices, as Joel called them – presented to fans throughout the evening.
In this case, the audience, consisting mainly of 40 and 50-something-year-olds, picked “Vienna” – a song Joel has called one of his favorites – over “Just the Way You Are,” a song that won the Grammy for both Song and Record of the Year in 1979. Both songs are from The Stranger album.
On Wednesday, the Piano Man returned to Utah for his first solo show in ten years (to the day!). Joel played many of his biggest crowd pleasing hits, but also dug deep to pull out some rarities for longtime fans, many of whom were able to sing right along to every song. Most in the audience appeared to be Billy Joel veterans who remembered the days when Joel released new music. Even though Joel’s first album was released 46 years ago, he hasn’t released a full album of new rock material in 24 years.
The legendary performer played songs from every album except 1986’s The Bridge on Wednesday. Opening the show with “My Life,” Joel followed that up with “Pressure” before getting into the multiple choice songs (the winner based loosely on crowd response).
Joel told the packed arena Wednesday that there are many album tracks he likes better than the “hits.” The crowd first voted on songs off Joel’s first album, Cold Spring Harbor, picking “She’s Got a Way” over “Everybody Loves You Now” (though most were likely more familiar with the live version of the song from 1981’s Songs in the Attic album).
From 1974’s Streetlife Serenade album, the crowd picked “The Entertainer” over the instrumental “Root Beer Rag.”
The 68-year-old Joel stayed close to his piano stool for the majority of the concert. The good-natured singer told stories or quick vignettes between most songs. Among the highlights: explaining that the band does not publicly sell the first five rows of seats so scalpers can’t get ahold of them. Instead, road crew members go to the back of the arena before the show and hand out front row tickets to fans. But because the road crew consists mainly of men, women generally get the seats, Joel said. Sure enough, there was a heavy female presence near the front of the stage Wednesday night.
Joel’s best line came when he said he got a call from Time that he was going to be the magazine’s Person of the Year, but he had to agree to an interview, making a very tongue-in-cheek reference to recent comments by the president.
Joel also joked that 52nd Street won the Grammy for Album of the Year because his previous album, The Stranger, lost due to the Bee Gees releasing the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever the same year. Joel then broke into a few lines of “Stayin’ Alive” before presenting the audience with their next multiple choice, “Stiletto” or “Zanzibar,” both off 52nd Street. “Stiletto” won with a coin toss.
Other crowd choices: “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” was an easy winner over “Storm Front;” “The Longest Time” won over “An Innocent Man;” and “New York State of Mind” was picked over “Miami 2017 (See the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” which is a completely unfair matchup from the Turnstiles album, as “New York State of Mind” will likely win out over everything else even though “Miami 2017” is a fantastic song. Off the Glass Houses album, the crowd picked “Sometimes a Fantasy” over “Sleeping With the Television On,” another underrated deep track that rarely ever gets played.
Probably the most unexpected deep track was when Joel played “Stop in Nevada,” his attempt at a country music song, off the Piano Man album.
But the concert wasn’t all rarities. For those who came to hear the “hits,” Joel also provided plenty of those. “Allentown,” “Movin’ Out,” “Always a Woman,” “Piano Man” and an extended “River of Dreams” that included a cover of “Take It Easy” from Eagles in the middle.
Joel’s veteran 8-piece band was on fire, including saxophonist Mark Rivera, lead guitarist Tommy Byrnes, percussionist Crystal Taliefero, drummer Chuck Burgi, and rhythm guitarist Michael DelGuidice who belted out the song the audience didn’t know they wanted to hear until he just crushed it: the opera classic “Nessun dorm” as an intro into “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Joel’s band kept up with every fielder’s choice and curve ball thrown at them without missing a beat. Guitar tech “Chainsaw” even brought down the house with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
For the encore, Joel had the entire audience on its feet for “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Uptown Girl,” “Big Shot,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right” which included a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”
More than 25 Joel songs, a few covers, and entertaining conversation made for a delightful 2-and-a-half-hour show. Whether this was Joel’s final Utah performance is to be seen. But if it was, he certainly proved why is he truly an American legend.