Billy Joel plays the hits, and pours some sugar, at Comerica Park

At a packed ballpark on a picture perfect evening, Billy Joel brought out the big guns, including a surprise appearance from Def Leppard's Joe Elliott

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was a pretty good crowd for a Saturday, as the Piano Man sings, when Billy Joel packed more than 30,000 fans into Comerica Park for a hits-filled night of crowd favorites and fan sing-alongs that was nearly three years in the making.

Saturday's show at the Tigers' ballpark, which unfolded on a picture-perfect summertime evening with temperatures in the upper 70s, was announced way back in Nov. 2019, and was then twice-delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I would like to thank those of you who bought tickets two years ago," Joel told the crowd early in the evening, which touched on more than two dozen songs over its two-hour, 15-minute run time. "Who the hell knew that was going to happen?"

No one knew at the time, but there was no complaining over the result, least of all from the man at the center of the show. 

The 73-year-old New Yorker, who these days could pass for a grizzled ex-fighter who now runs an amateur boxing gym, came out looking spiffy and professional in an all-black suit with a black shirt and a black tie. (He's on the short list of pop singers who wear suits on stage, along with Pitbull and Michael Bublé.) His set connected those inescapable piano-rock classics ("Piano Man," "Uptown Girl," "Pressure," "Allentown") with deep cuts from his catalog and a few welcome surprises. 

The biggest of those surprises came when Joel, following a performance of the 1982 non-single "A Room of Our Own," brought out Joe Elliott from Def Leppard to rip through a rendition of his band's fist-pumping stadium rocker "Pour Some Sugar On Me," with Joel on backing vocal duties. Elliott is in town for Sunday's Def Leppard/Mötley Crüe extravaganza, the third night in an unprecedented three-night run of shows at Comerica Park, which kicked off Friday night with country superstar Chris Stapleton's show at the downtown ballpark. 

Billy Joel performs at Comerica Park in Detroit.

There were several shout-outs to Detroit across the evening, including shortened versions of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" and Martha and the Vandella's "Dancing in the Street" (sung by Joel's longtime multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero) along with a tease of the piano intro to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll," which acted as a lead-in to "Only the Good Die Young." 

The Seger will-he-or-won't-he was was indicative of the show's loose vibe and Joel's relaxed demeanor, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never took anything too seriously, least of all himself. He aped his way through cheesy front-man poses during "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" and openly questioned his own ability to still hit the high notes in "An Innocent Man."

"If I don't hit it, it's a real cringe fest," Joel told the crowd, "so if I don't hit it, I will accept your boos." When he turned around and hit the notes clean, the crowd awarded him with ample cheers; it was his ace in the bag all along. 

Billy Joel performs at Comerica Park in Detroit.

The show unfolded on a massive stage with video screens on either side, and eight fractured panels of video screens above the stage. Joel was joined by his eight-person backing band, which included a pair of horn players and backing vocalist Mike DelGuidice, a Joel soundalike (and lookalike) who once led a Billy Joel tribute band, who capably handled a rendition of "Nessun Dorma" as Joel backed him

The crowd was mostly 40s and up, and was worked into doing a stadium-appropriate wave during the opening set by piano rocker Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Fans sang along and danced in place, and all the way into the upper deck lit up in a glow of cell phones several times, including during the ballad "She's Always a Woman." "Piano Man," meanwhile, the emotional capper of the night, prompted as many fans to record video on their phones as the crowd would at an Olivia Rodrigo concert. (Rodrigo, coincidentally, namechecks Joel on her 2021 hit "Deja Vu.")  

Joel — often wiping away a watering left eye — sipped from a white mug that was held in a cup holder built into his piano. But his favorite accessory was the Camouflage fly swatter he used to bat away the bugs buzzing around his head as he sat at his piano. "You've got some funny bugs up here," he said. "I just don't want to swallow one." 

Billy Joel plays 'air guitar' while performing at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Talkative throughout the evening, Joel told stories behind the songs, like when he knew "Just the Way You Are" was going to be a hit judging by the way a crowd in Pittsburgh reacted to it when he performed it while opening a show for the Doobie Brothers. He was seated at his piano for most of the show, but took the front-man position several times, strapping on a guitar for an encore-opening "We Didn't Start the Fire." 

"Fire" is of course the 1989 listicle of Big Events in Joel's lifetime, ticking off everything from Marilyn Monroe to the Bay of Pigs to those damned cola wars of the 1980s. A lot has happened since, obviously, and if any song in the Joel catalog demands a modern update it's "We Didn't Start the Fire"; it's a bit odd to sing a song about the defining events of one's lifetime and leave out the last 30-plus years.

But Joel famously gave up pop songwriting in the early '90s, so in essence his catalog is a time capsule, preserved in amber, stopped cold in 1993 after his final studio album, "River of Dreams." So the songs don't change, they're there forever, and the demand for Joel to sing them is great enough that he's still filling stadiums with them. (Saturday was Joel's biggest-ever solo concert in Detroit.)

Through the years Joel has been critical of his friend Elton John, who's continued to make new music throughout his career, for maybe making too many songs. Joel quit when he felt the time was right for him, so you can't begrudge the guy, and even if you did, he's got a song for that too.

"Keep it to yourself," he sang in Saturday's opener. "It's my life."

Billy Joel setlist at Comerica Park: 

1. "My Life" (intro with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy")

2. "Pressure"

3. "The Entertainer"

4. "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" (partial) 

5. "Just the Way You Are" 

6. "Zanzibar" 

7. "Vienna"

8. "An Innocent Man" (with Rolling Stone's "Start Me Up" as intro) 

9. "Keeping the Faith" 

10. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"

11. "She's Always a Woman"

12. "A Room of Our Own"

13. "Pour Some Sugar On Me" (with Def Leppard's Joe Elliott) 

14. "Allentown"

15. "I Go to Extremes"

16. "Sometimes a Fantasy"

17. "Only the Good Die Young" (with Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" intro) 

18. "The River of Dreams" (with Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" segue) 

19. "Nessun Dorma"

20. "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"

21. "Piano Man"

Encore: 

22. "We Didn't Start the Fire"

23. "Uptown Girl" 

24. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"

25. "Big Shot"

26. "You May be Right" (with snippet of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll")  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama