Billy Joel Returns To Texas

The Piano Man makes his debut at Houston’s Minute Maid Park

Billy Joel Minute Maid Park concert poster (Image: Twitter)

In his first stop in Houston since 2015, Billy Joel performed at the home of the Houston Astros baseball team, Minute Maid Park. 

This Houston crowd is about as diverse as the city, with ages ranging from young kids to great-grandparents. The dress code is Texas casual; cowboy hats and boots, Astros jerseys, and Billy Joel shirts that seem to document every hairstyle he’s ever had. 

As Billy Joel begins his first song, “A Matter of Trust,” the Houston crowd is still scurrying to their seats. Joel points to the imaginary watch on his wrist with a smile to let the crowd know that they’re running behind. How did the artist manage to beat the crowd to the show?

Moving from guitar to piano, Joel swiftly follows with “Pressure.” You would think that the heavy synthesiser would make this song sound outdated – a sci-fi-tinged relic from the ‘80s. Hearing this performed live proves that this is far from the truth. The transitions between the sedated verses to the busy chorus create a tension that is mirrored in the lyrics all about the pressures of modern life. The song still holds up.

Joel finally greets the audience by saying, “Good evening, Houston! This is very cool!” He launches into an anecdote about how he used to play a club here in Houston back in the ‘70s, “but this is different.” He is likely remembering The Liberty Hall, which no longer exists. It had a capacity of about 450, and had wooden floors – quite different from the baseball stadium with over 41,000 seats. For almost every song, Billy would remind the audience of what year it came out. This caused some surprised looks in the audience (Has it already been 40 years?), as well as some confused looks (Wow, Dad, you’re old!).

 

VIDEO: Billy Joel “Just The Way You Are” (Live 1977)

Prefacing his next song, he says that it’s off an album from 1977 called The Stranger, which earned instant applause. The song is “Just the Way You Are,” and it is the first of a few tracks for couples to gaze lovingly at each other. At the end of the song, one audience member felt compelled to yell, “We love you just the way you are, William!” 

The next song is “The Entertainer” from 1974’s Streetlife Serenade. Billy tells the crowd “You don’t have that album, no one bought that album.” He tells us that it was written in protest of The Midnight Special show and one of its hosts, Wolfman Jack. The lyrics are all about the transience of the music industry: “I know the game and you’ll forget my name / And I won’t be here in another year / If I don’t stay on the charts.” This all sounds very tongue-in-cheek coming from him, considering he hasn’t released an album of new material in about 30 years, and yet he still draws a crowd of over 40,000. 

Billy Joel gives us a disclaimer before “An Innocent Man”: “Sometimes the high notes disappear…If I don’t hit that note you’ll know, pray for me,” he says as he takes a sip of water and shakes the nerves from his hands. It’s brave to call attention to something like this since it sets the audience on high alert to his high notes. He wrote the song when he was 34 years old; now he’s 73 years old, and still more than able to hit the note. 

Following a performance of the familiar favorite “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Joel inexplicably then goes into the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” strutting across the stage in true Mick Jagger fashion, from the puckered lips to the hip wiggles. They only performed a snippet of the song, but it was enough to get the crowd pumped up. 

Billy then asked his band if they were in the key of E flat, and began a free-form performance of “In The Still of the Night” – but he admittedly didn’t know the words, singing in perfect pitch, “In the still of the night / I don’t know the words to this song / so I can’t do it right.” It was clearly a warm up for his own take on the barbershop quartet style, “The Longest Time.” Billy has an excellent band of multitaskers behind him but one woman in particular, Crystal Taliefero, jumps from percussion to sax, to vocals, and on this song in particular, her voice really shines. 

 

VIDEO: Billy Joel “The Longest Time”

Houstonians have a lot of pride in where we’re from, so it is surprising that the audience would get along so well with “Allentown” – perhaps it’s the theme of the working class that have a universal truth in it. From Allentown to “Zanzibar,” Billy Joel takes us to an underground jazz club – this is where we see the full talent of his horn players unleashed, especially the trumpet player, Carl Fischer. “Keepin’ the Faith” followed, and once again, Taliefero is the one to watch. The lyrics “You know the good ole days weren’t always good / Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems” bring comfort to the crowd of all ages, and the camera pans to a little boy who holds a sign that reads “This is my birthday present!”

A crowd favorite was “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)/” There’s nothing like hearing 40,000 people emphasise the “heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” and “Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac” of the verses. “She’s Always a Woman” was another song for the couples in the crowd (perhaps they overlook the deviousness of the woman in the song). Towards the end of the song where Billy hums the tune of the verse, the whole crowd joins in with a low, collective hum that seems to vibrate the entire stadium. 

The band then plays a portion of “Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster because, well, we’re in the South I guess, and this serves as a transition into “My Life.” This is the first song that brings the audience to their feet, and the first one that made me reflect on my own life. I’m in Houston for my brother’s wedding, an event where many of my family members will inevitably ask me when I am going to move back home, so the lines “I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright, / I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home,” feel incredibly poignant. The wonderful thing about watching live music is knowing that the songs have a personal meaning and value to everyone in attendance. 

Billy then reminds us that he used to be a musical bad boy. He prefaces “Sometimes a Fantasy” by saying that the song got him in a bit of trouble back in the day since it was “too risque… but mild by today’s standards.” He then says “I got in a lot of trouble for this one too” right before he launches into “Only the Good Die Young.” We’ve all heard this song many times, but hearing the growl of the saxophone, and a slightly improvized piano solo live is one of the highlights of the show. 

“I want to say Happy Birthday to a good friend of mine, Bruce Springsteen, we almost look the same age now,” he jokes before playing the first verse and chorus of “Born to Run.” The brevity of this song is made up for by the extended version of “River of Dreams,” which turns into “Dancing in the Street” lead by Crystal Taliefero, then detours quickly to “I Go to Extremes,” and then back into the original song. 

Throwing another surprise in the set, Billy Joel’s backup singer, Mike DelGuidice, performs Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” It’s an unusual choice for this kind of crowd, but it shows the diversity of his influences. “River of Dreams” obviously had that African drum rhythm running throughout the sequence, while “Nessun Dorma” shows the Italian influence that he grew up with in Nassau County. The song choice suddenly clicks into place as he launches into his hometown epic, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” I’m instantly struck by the liberties he takes in the piano solo, it sounds a lot more boogie-woogie, and isn’t restrained to the recorded version. With the whole band “waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye,” it feels like the final song of his set, but there’s still one song needed before he can leave the stage.

Donning his harmonica neck holder and beginning with his iconic piano lick, the expectant crowd welcomed “Piano Man” with cheers. No Billy Joel set would be complete without the song that gave him his nickname. The whole crowd is transformed into the bar he’s describing in this song as strangers lock arms, and many raise their glasses in the biggest sing-song of the night. It all gets very meta-theatrical to watch him perform this song live.

 

VIDEO: Billy Joel “Piano Man” (Live at Shea Stadium)

The crowd was left wanting more, but how do you follow a song like “Piano Man”? Well, with a string of his top hits. His encore included “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” a cover of the local Houston heroes, ZZ Top’s “Tush,” “Big Shot,” and concluded with “You May Be Right,” which took a brief detour to Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” before returning to his Glass Houses hit.

Billy Joel’s multi-faceted sound is obviously the main reason for his longevity in music history, but he has also developed into a touchstone in popular culture. The Boys Amazon Prime show has a character (Hughie Campbell) whose obsession with Billy Joel becomes a major plot point in the series, and he’s also been name-checked in Olivia Rodrigo’s smash hit “Déjà vu,” which both introduced Joel to a new audience. This writer became a fan of Billy Joel through the Disney film Oliver & Company (he voiced the adorable dog named Dodger).

There are young members of this audience wearing The Boys and Olivia Rodrigo T-shirts, which just goes to show you that no matter how you came to Billy Joel – whether you were there when he was still an up-and comer, or long after he became the “Piano Man,” you will still undoubtedly leave his concert singing “Uptown Girl” amongst fellow fans.

 

VIDEO: Billy Joel picks his Top 5 Billy Joel songs on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

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Stephanie Hernandez

Stephanie Hernandez is a PhD student of English and Music at the University of Liverpool, where she is researching the echoes of Romanticism in the ‘Classic Rock’ era of the 1960s-1970s. Stephanie is also a music journalist who loves to wax lyrical about her favorite artists in every piece that she writes. You can find her on twitter @hstephanie9.

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