Auburn Hills — It was a night of familiar sing-alongs at the Palace of Auburn Hills Saturday night, as Billy Joel packed more than 17,000 fans into the Detroit Pistons home for a celebration of the singer’s catalog of pop hits.
That’s the thing about Joel: He doesn’t bore fans with his new stuff because he doesn’t have any new stuff with which to bore them. The newest song Joel broke out during his 23-song, 1-hour 50-minute set was “The River of Dreams,” the title track from his last pop album, which last year turned 20 years old. So there were no excuses for bathroom breaks on Saturday, it was just hits, just the way you remember them.
There are pros and cons to that style of presentation. On the plus side, the show delivered an unflappable catalog of songs you know by heart, songs you’ve worn out on vinyl, cassette and CD. And there’s something to be said about the comfort of a straight-down-the-middle presentation, performed by a band that plays it so straight-down-the-middle that its members include the drummer from Joel’s Broadway musical “Movin’ Out” (Chuck Burgi) and the frontman of a Billy Joel tribute band (guitarist and backing vocalist Mike DelGuidice).
And there were a few curve balls in the mix, too: There was talk this tour would find the 64-year-old digging into rarities and unheralded gems from his career, and he did so by dusting off “Vienna,” from “The Stranger,” as well as 1982’s “A Room of Our Own” and 1980’s “Sometimes a Fantasy.”
The cons? Sometimes the show played things too straightforward, like when the band paid tribute to the Beatles with a wholly generic reading of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” or when Joel serenaded Detroit with obvious choices “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Dancin’ in the Street” and “Old Time Rock and Roll.” No one can fault those choices, but the readings brought nothing new to the table.
But this was an old time rock and roll show, and Joel wasn’t looking to impress anyone by being esoteric or playing the contrarian. People paid good money to see Joel deliver the hits, and those hits came in droves: Opener “Movin’ Out” led right into “Pressure”; “And So it Goes” gave way to “Allentown”; and set-closer “Piano Man” led into an encore that saw Joel deliver five cannon shots in a row: “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Big Shot,” “You May Be Right” and show-closer “Only the Good Die Young.”
The stage’s design was simple but effective, with Joel in the center of the stage at his piano, which would rotate in a circle every few songs. He was surrounded by his six piece band and two piece horn section, and eight chopped up video screens hung above the stage the offered a cool view of the show to the crowd (though several times the camera showed oopsie glimpses of Joel’s on-stage Teleprompter).
Joel was in a loose, relaxed mood, sipping from a Billy Joel Live in Concert coffee mug throughout the show and bantering freely in between songs. He joked about his age and the fact that he’s still called Billy (“what kind of name is that for a guy my age? Billy. ‘Can Billy come out and play?’”), and at one point he gave an off-color descriptor of the video footage that ran during “Allentown,” calling it “really gay,” saying it contained footage of “guys taking showers and (expletive), did (it) really need that?”
Joel stayed seated at his piano the majority of the show, but he came alive when he stood up and took the microphone stand during “Uptown Girl” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” Joel is an animated frontman, and the swagger and lyric pantomiming he brought to “Uptown Girl” – somewhat of a rarity for Joel to perform – made it a show highlight. He treated his mic stand like his dance partner during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” tossing it, twirling it and getting it to fall into his arms, showing there are still sparks of the madman performer who lit up arenas and made his name with his showy live performances.
He could have gone longer — earlier this week at the Palace, Kings of Leon played a longer set than Joel did – but he didn’t need to. But the warmest moment of the show came when he did “And So it Goes” alone at his piano, bringing an intimacy and an immediacy that was lost the rest of the night. Sometimes, all the piano man needs is his piano.