Photos By Armando Gallardo, Words By David Whitehead
When I boarded the Green Line and sat down, the murmurs and anticipation were already all over the rail car. At Gallery Place, we were inundated with a mass of humanity out of place for 6:30pm on a Saturday. The murmuring grew suddenly into a raucous, guffawing bustle. Finally someone shouted out over the crowd: “Anyone under the age of 40 who is going to the Billy Joel concert?”
I slunk slight back into my cushioned seat, while the instigator, spying two other twenty-somethings, asked loudly “Which one of your parents made you go?”
Yes, I was well below the median age on this train of Billy Joel fans. I had spent the last few days reminding myself what other songs Billy played besides “Uptown Girl” and “Piano Man”. I was a little ashamed: Joel is one of those 70’s/80’s, headliners you should just know about, like Sting or Cindy Lauper.
It turns out the crowd of over 38,000 at Nationals Park was more age-diverse than my train car sample had anticipated. The Piano Man must look real small from the nosebleeds, but greater DC delivered a nearly sold-out crowd for the 65-year-old legend. As the lady next to me on the train put it, “Anyone who went to high school in the 80’s was in there.”
Miller tall boys and chili covered sausages in hand, the crowd settled in as the opening act appeared on stage. Gavin DeGraw and band, a name probably more familiar to those in the crowd of my generation, brought a slick, driving set to start off the night. With clever, tight transitions and Gavin’s country-flecked vocals, the group built up the crowd to a steady hum for the headliner, ripping through hits like “Not Over You”, “I Don’t Want to Be”, and “In Love with a Girl”. DeGraw and company sizzled with a coolness and confidence that won over all ages, eventually bringing everyone to their feet after an extended crowd walk-through that brought him way out into center field and back again during a cover of “Rich Girl”.
Gavin soon stepped aside for his “idol” (his words), the original Piano Man. Billy opened with a lackluster first two songs: “Matter of Trust” and “Pressure”, visibly bothered by some piece of the stage set-up. Yet after some between-song banter and charm, Joel loosened up and you began to see the veteran entertainer work his magic. For a youngin’ like me who honestly should know more about Billy Joel, I was struck the versatility of his voice and how it could blend in perfectly with the diverse set of styles that is the Billy Joel songbook. Moving easily from classic 80’s pop sounds (“Zanzibar”, “The Entertainer”, “An Innocent Man”), to more soulful takes of songs like “New York State of Mind”, Billy’s vocal flexibility was impressive throughout the night. His true home, as always, were in his ballads, where his vocal and piano chops were more visibly on display, and his musical maturity shone through.
Also striking was Billy’s understated comedic presence. Billy Joel is funny. He knows how to work a crowd. Early in the show he began waving around a cheap, plastic flyswatter at the insects swirling around his head under the bright lights. It became a running commentary and side joke. During the solo break on “New York State of Mind”, Joel drummed out a quick run-through of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, and later during “Movin’ Out” he deftly swatted an unseen bug with his left, while continuing the rapid melody line with his right. His transition chats were genuine, brief and witty, and he even stepped aside for a surprise guest performance from one his roadies, named Chainsaw, who belted out a blasting cover of “Highway to Hell” before literally dropping the mike and walking off the stage. Good stuff.
After a poignant rendition of “Goodnight Saigon”, during which a group of Vietnam veterans joined Joel on stage, you could really see that Joel and company were beginning to enjoy themselves. Cruising through classics like “Allentown”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, and “In the Middle of the Night”, the group ended their 17 song set with the classic closer, “Piano Man”. His classic seemed more sentimental and heartfelt sung by the now much older Joel, and again Billy’s masterful balladeering was on full display. All briefly exited the stage before coming back, after the crowd started waving around their cellphones, with a 5-song encore including “Uptown Girl”, “Big Shot”, and “Only the Good Die Young”, dispelling all doubt that these veterans were too tired to rock.
As a light rain ushered us quickly out of the stadium that night, each humming our own favorite Billy Joel chorus line, even a millennial such as myself had to admit: the Piano Man still can play. No need for a parental urging for the next Billy Joel event; count me in.