“This is my outfit for tonight,” Billy Joel, donned in a Cornell hoodie and cap, explained to the full house at Bailey Hall on Friday night. “I left my clothes at home.”
Right away Joel made it clear that he didn’t intend for the night to go as a normal concert does. Rather, he asked for audience questions, and here and there treated us to a bit of music on either piano or electric keyboard, or in Joel’s words, his piano and his “abbreviated piano. It has pianist envy,” he joked, pointing to the small keyboard.
While he did play through a handful of his songs, many of his musical interludes were fun parodies or improvisations. His first performance was a parody of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed And Confused,” to explain why, on this night, he couldn’t do all of his songs justice. As he let out a screech in the style of Robert Plant himself, the clunky piano accompaniment sounded ridiculous, though the audience didn’t seem to mind.
Throughout the night, Joel used his piano skills to explain a question or build upon a joke. When asked if he has specific goals while writing, Joel said he never sits down and tries to write a hit. “I was usually trying to get a girl into bed,” he said, and moved to the piano to play through Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. “It’s been an inspiration for composers for centuries,” he argued, and broke into Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Pausing between the melody, he shouted out to the audience, “Beethoven got smoldery! He’s so deep! So troubled!” amidst laughter.
While still on the topic of hits, he played his first full song of the night. “Let’s get this out of the way early,” he said, and delivered a lively but rushed “Piano Man.” The ecstatic audience sang along to a chorus. When finished, Joel noted the song’s quirks, such as its six eight time signature and its length. “It’s half an hour long! What the hell kind of a single is that?”
He touched on his influences to tell how he was inspired to write “Uptown Girl,” saying it was meant to be an homage and a joke, as a way to do the opposite of Frankie Valli’s “Rag Doll.” He also addressed a question about Paul Simon and delivered a fun rendition of “Only the Good Die Young” pausing before the lyric, “You got a nice white dress and a party on your confirmation,” to pinpoint Simon’s influence.
Joel continued to field interesting, serious, and heartfelt questions throughout the show, and talked about his ongoing tour with Elton John, his work with Ray Charles, and his admiration for current artists Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and The Killers. He also addressed personal, albeit sometimes awkward or bizarre, questions from the audience. A Renee from Vienna asked about the song “Downeaster Alexa,” but first had an odd exchange with Joel about his history in Vienna and claimed to know his brother, conductor Alexander Joel, which left Joel looking more than surprised. Another girl enthusiastically asked whether Joel knew her uncle– “He goes by Snake!”– and if they had played in a band together back in the day. Joel’s answer was no, as was his answer to another girl’s request to accompany her to her sorority’s formal party.
Another unexpected moment occurred when Joel called President Skorton to the stage to accompany his “She’s Always a Woman” in exceptional Ron Burgundy fashion. A thrilled and bewildered audience cheered as Skorton marched up to the stage, retrieved a flute, and started riffing. At first, Cornell’s President seemed nervous, but soon got into it, and by the end was powering through countermelodies.
Toward the end of the show, Joel talked about possibilities for new music and a future tour, as he’s been off the road since March 2010. He then treated us to a new tune, a contemporary classical instrumental he called “the hymn,” and referenced classical composer Edgar Elgar as an influence. Apparently, the next music Joel releases may be a very different direction from hits were used to, as he said he has been writing thematic, abstract, instrumental music.
Wrapping up the concert, he played fan favorite “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and addressed his time as a high schooler who looked up to the popular kids. He also flew through his take on The Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money,” to kid that even the greats don’t know what words they’re singing. And though he closed with a powerful, vocally strong performance of his revered “New York State of Mind,” his best performance of the night, undeniably, was his “Vienna.” Right before the song’s start, Joel explained his history with the city. The song, he said, is for his father, who died last year. The audience, completely silent, watched Joel’s passionate delivery. His scatting, which he’d added to other songs during the night to make up for lack of instrumental break-downs, was anything but corny. Most in the audience were likely easily moved by his powerful delivery.
He left with thoughtful parting sentiments that any college student can relate to. Speaking on education, Joel explained his loss of interest during high school, as the goal was only to pass the test, not to actually know or learn things of substance. He stressed to the audience to have fun in life and follow one’s interests. Additionally, he advised not to limit oneself. Poking fun at those who claim to only listen to one type of music, he acknowledged that “There’s a banquet out there.” When he left the stage, he had talked and played for nearly two and a half hours, but in all honesty, the time had flown by. Joel achieved great transitions from questions to songs, and the audience was not only thoroughly entertained, but also touched by Joel’s words of wisdom.
images taken from Cornell Concert Commission website and from rollingstone.com