When my mom asked if I wanted see Billy Joel, my response was something along the lines of, "Hell yes!" Billy's been a favorite of mine for as long as I can remember. In fifth grade English class, Mrs. Frankel had us create our own version of The Jolly Postman, an interactive book of correspondence between fairy tale characters. Already heavily influenced by the music world at age 11, I centered my theme around musicians, one of the recipients being Mr. Joel.
When I found out he was playing the Sears Center in my hometown of Hoffman Estates, IL, I was less than thrilled. I swore I would never go back there after my experience at the Dylan concert last year (read account here: dylan) But I put my differences aside, braved an ice storm (i.e. a normally 25-minute drive turned into a 2+ hour drive) out to the suburbs and accompanied my mom in row H on the floor of the arena.
The show was scheduled to begin at 8:00. Around 8:15 or so the lights went dark and suddenly Billy appeared at the piano surrounded by his fellow band members. He went right into "Angry Young Man." There was a screen hanging on either side of the stage, so everyone could see the musician in action. I have never seen anyone's fingers move like that! I felt like I was suddenly privy to a magician's secret. From the first few notes, I was hooked. I had seen him live one other time my senior of high school during his Dueling Pianos tour with Sir Elton John--still to date one of the best concerts I've ever attended. But we saw them at Allstate (then, Rosemont Horizon) where we sat in the worst seats possible and there were no screens to aide our view of the iconic men and their magic. Oh, and my whole family almost died on the drive home (you can read about that here)
For his second song, he faded into "My Life" by playing a few measures of "Jingle Bells." I thought, "Oh come on, Billy! Hanukkah starts in three days!" I immediately forgot, though, as soon as "My Life" began and jumped to my feet singing along at the top of my lungs--"Go ahead with your own life, leave me alooooone". My mom joined me and I told her, "This is what happens when you get floor seats--they turn into standing seats," as everyone rose to their feet and the only way to see anything was to rise ourselves and stand our tippy toes.
"Hey Chicago!" Billy said, with an exaggerated Shi-cah-go accent. "I'm Billy's dad. Billy couldn't make it tonight...he's probably out drinking somewhere. Thanks for coming out on a night like this. I know you in "Shi-cah-go" are used to this weather. People over here," he motioned behind himself, "are only getting the back of me. Just remember--it's not how bald you get, it's how much head you get."
"If you can get this job, I highly recommend it," he shared and then sprayed both his throat and armpits with some concoction he said Madonna made famous, before a rousing rendition of "The Entertainer." Afterwards he introduced his keyboardist, Dave Rosenthal, from New Jersey. Dave played two keyboards at once, one hand on each. Pret-ty impressive if you ask me.
Billy left the 5th song up to the applause of the audience.
1) Summer Highland Falls
2) She's Right On Time ("a Christmas song," he added)
I hadn't heard of any of the choices, but I've always wanted to go to Vienna, so I cheered along with the majority. Number three won. I ended up really liking the song; it's beautiful and the lyrics reminded me of one of my favorite movies: Before Sunrise. "When will you realize...Vienna waits for you..."
"Choo choo" the train whistle sounded, prefacing "Allentown."
He introduced guitarist, Tommy Burns, from Long Island, then said, "That's all for the special effects--this isn't a Justin Timberlake concert." And thank goodness for that. (Ok, fine, I like JT, but nowhere near as much as this guy)
Next up: "Zanzibar"featuring Carl Fisher (also from L.I.) on the trumpet and frugal horn. Then slowing it down a bit with "New York State of Mind," I sat down and got nostalgic about the good times I spent living in NYC, Brooklyn-based sax player, Mark Rivera, bringing me back to those carefree college years wandering the streets NY, inspired and in love.
"Chicago's a good town," Billy said, everyone cheered, and I snapped out of the past and thought--yeah, you're right. "If you're somewhere like Alcatuna, the band looks at me like 'Alcatuna sucks.' But Chicago's a good town."
Nice intro to "My Kind of Town," which ended up being a tease, as he claimed he didn't know any of Sinatra's lyrics past the first verse. My mom thinks he was fibbing. He introduced "Root Beer Rag" by saying that it's difficult to get all the notes right but, "What you'll hear is an authentic rock'n'roll screw up." Again I became transfixed with the wild but calculated moves of his fingers. My mom leaned over and shared similar sentiments, "I just can't get over his fingers!"I will also mention here that, despite my mom having an injured leg, she was up dancing the entire two hours. And I wonder where I get it from...
He introduced his drummer from NYC, Chuck Burgi, after "Movin' Out."
I have mixed feelings about what happened next. I'll let Billy introduce the new song himself (turn up the volume, the recording's not very loud).
He then introduced his "younger voice," Cass Dillon to sing his not-yet-released song, "Christmas In Fallujah."
Watch and cringe. Or sing along if you prefer because the lyrics were close-captioned on the big screen.
Ok, Billy, obviously I appreciated the anti-war message and that the proceeds from itunes sales are going to an organization called Homes For Our Troops, which builds homes for severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, I think "They say Osama's in the mountains/deep in a cave near Pakistan/But there's a sea of blood in Baghdad/a sea of oil in the sand" points out the stupidity behind this drawn-out war. And I think the presence of the the uniformed military personnel chanting "Hu Ha" (or is it "Oo Ra"?) interspersed with the singers singing "Hallelujah" was pretty powerful.
I understand the pride you must feel hearing someone else perform your lyrics and I appreciate that you decided to debut them in my hometown, but do you really, really need someone who looks and sounds like the lead singer of Creed, one of the worst bands on the planet, to butcher what you've created?
There may have been a collective sigh of relief when Dillon left the stage and Billy reclaimed the spotlight with the lighthearted "Keeping the Faith."
He then left the piano and stood center-stage behind a microphone stand and belted out the beginning of "Stand By Me," one of my favorite songs by good ol' Ben E. King. Cameras flashed from all directions, which reminded me of my grudge against this place. I hate when I don't have my camera.
"I didn't write that one," Billy admitted after the first verse. "But I wish I had."
He then returned to the piano and sang "An Innocent Man," interpretive dancing and intermittently snapping his fingers while seated on the piano bench when his hands were free. I snapped along with him and learned that my mom can't snap her fingers. (Later, in the parking lot I also learned she can't whistle.) I didn't catch the bassist's name, but I did hear that he's Australian, which is pretty cool.
"Uno.Dos.Unodostresquatro," a Spanish countdown to "Don't Ask Me Why." Good one.
At its completion, I noticed we were already at song #15, so I turned to my mom and said, "He better sing 'It's Still Rock'n'Roll To me'." Then he played the opposite--"She's Always a Woman To Me." I laughed out loud as I watched the swaying, swooning middle-aged women on the big screen, mouthing the words along with the man of the hour.
The next song-"River of Dreams"-used to play through my mind before I fell asleep at night when I was younger. Made me think of "Where The Wild Things Are." I had forgotten that this number belonged to his repertoire, so it was a nice, upbeat surprise.
He introduced the final member of the band, Crystal, from good ol' Gary, Indiana. "On percussion, vocals, harmonica, sax and everything else on stage..."
I'm not sure if this would be considered a trait of a trained ear or a music addict, but I frequently have the ability to detect a song by the first note or two. "We didn't start the fire!" I cheered. My mom looked at me and said, "You're way better at that than I am." I sang along to the few lyrics I knew. My mom questioned how Joel remembered all the words to that song, and I said, "Well if I can memorize the lyrics to any song I've ever heard, don't you think he'd be able remember his own?"
Based on the sound quality, I kept expecting to see the young rocker from the cover of Glass Houses up on stage and then there's a gray-haired 58-year-old wearing a backwards Chicago Cubs red baseball cap singing "Big Shot," strumming his guitar at a mic stand.
(John Records Landecker, checking out my "oldies jeans" at "bring-your-dog-and-get-free-ice-cream" day at the local DQ, summer '01)
There are some older musicians who still try and act like it's their Glory Days, but not Billy. He's the real thing. There's the badass I came to see! I thought, as he played a teasing intro to my favorite, "It's Still Rock'n'Roll To Me" and used the mic stand both as a baton and to air-guitar.
That song has been an ongoing anthem in my life. First of all, they're the first song lyrics I remember deliberately memorizing. Second of all, it's the song that made me want to be a drummer at age 10. And thirdly, I felt like Billy and I were on the same unapologetic wavelength.
What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing? I had an eclectic wardrobe in my teenager years (including "a bright orange pair of pants", which has toned down over the years, but I still have crazy-clothes tendencies.
What's the matter with the car I'm driving? In high school I drove a 1989 two-door Nissan Sentra (affectionately named Red Ninja) with slashed seats and a radio/tape deck that would only play if you banged the side of it with your fist. A good majority of the school drove fancy sports cars or luxury mobiles. I got a kick out of blasting this song in the parking lot, pissing off the glorified Vikings with my proudly displayed bumper sticker that read, "If dance were any easier, it would be called football."
What's the matter with the crowd I'm seeing? Don't you know that they're out of touch/Should I try to be a straight-A student? If you are than you think too much. Growing up I was always a part of guinea pig programs and classrooms full of the "smart kids." In later years when math and science didn't come so naturally to me anymore, I found solace in Billy's lyrics and probably rebelled by quoting him to my parents.
And, of course: "Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound, funny, but it's still rock'n'roll to me." Self-explanatory.
(me and the oldies van at "bring-your-dog-and-get-free-ice-cream" day at the local DQ, summer '01)
He finished out the set with my other favorite, "You May Be Right." In college I made callers sit through the chorus if they reached my cellular voicemail soapbox--I'm gonna do what I wanna do and love who I wanna love (don't worry, I didn't actually say that...I let Billy speak for me).
You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just might be a lunatic you're looking for
"Thank you, Chicago!" Billy said with a wave before the stage went dark. The concept of the encore has always been humorous to me. Obviously the artist is going to return, yet we all stand around cheering our brains out like he might actually leave if we don't strain our vocal chords. Nevertheless, I joined in because it's hard not to get caught up in such a brilliant performance. People started waving their glowing cell phones in the air. I heard the guy behind me say to his friend, "Yeah, cause that's the new lighter." Gross.
Billy played a quick Christmas song intro before transitioning into "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," a song that made me laugh, reminding me of my friend Cooper singing karaoke at Piece [a pizza, bar, live music joint in my Wicker Park neighborhood].
"Thank you, Chicago!" he said again.
Then a quick "Joy to the World" (not 3 Dog Night, Christmas) intro before "Only the Good Die Young." My mom and I danced next to each other, I wearing my grandmother's shoes, I noted. Three generations (in theory) dancing to a song about defying the confines of church and religion..."They say there's a heaven for those who will wait/Some say it's better but I say it ain't/I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun..."
As he was playing "Silent Night," I saw him pick up his harmonica. That's right, Billy. You can't leave without playing "Piano Man" or it'll make front-page news: "Piano Man strays from 'Piano Man.'"
"It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday..." Ow! Ow! Crazy cheering for Saturday reference--we can relate to that because it is, in fact, Saturday!
This song reminds me of two things, aside from singing along to it in the car with my parents.
1) I remember bringing my harmonica to my art class senior year of high school and figuring out how to play those parts of the song.
2) Dancing, and I mean full-out ballet moves at three weddings, leaping around and weaving in and out of slow-moving couples, not letting my single-status keep me from enjoying the dance floor, where I am truly in my element.
For the final chorus, he let the audience sing without him. And we actually didn't sound half-bad.
"Thank you, Chicago! Goodnight. Happy holidays. Don't take any shit from anybody."
As we were filing out of our row, my mom said, "Oh! We should invite him over for a drink, we live so close!"
"A drink??" My mom does not drink. Although, when I questioned her, she informed me that she had two bloody marys at my dad's office party last night.
"Well--Diet Coke," she said with a laugh.
Outside in the frigid parking lot, I danced my way to the car, ignoring the black ice beneath my feet. It took us over 20 minutes just to get out and onto Route 59, so I turned on the ipod and played Billy Joel songs, which he did not sing. And for good measure, an encore of my favorite: "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me" and drummed the steering wheel in time with the beats. I commented that Billy is one of those musicians who actually sounds better live than he does recorded, which is rare and much appreciated.
We went through the drive-thru of McDonald's and each got a small Coke. Myself, regular and hers, Diet. Cheers to you, Mr. Joel--we love you just the way you are.