Billy Joel review – Seasoned showman delivers timeless classics and signature dead-pan banter

<span>Photograph: Future Publishing/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Future Publishing/Getty Images

Walking down to the MCG, I invent names and histories for the people around me. Harry and Norm, who recently got married finally, had their first kiss to a Billy Joel song in the 70s.

Peter and Kathy are on their first proper date night post-lockdown, finally off grandkid babysitting duties. Sullen-faced Brendan is 13 and his favourite Billie is Eilish, but his dad swears he’ll like this. And me: I heard Billy Joel songs as a kid through my cool uncle, whose record collection taught me all I know about music. We could all be characters in Billy Joel songs.

It’s Joel’s first visit to these shores since 2008, and his only Australian show as part of the Victorian government’s Always Live initiative (its other big-ticket international billing was the Foo Fighters, who kicked off proceedings in March in Geelong). For an initiative that’s meant to reinvigorate the local music scene, it’s an awful lot of money to sink on American artists – but the tourism angle is working, with more than 40% of the 71,000 tickets sold to attenders from interstate.

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Cynicism aside, there’s something magical about the sight of a sold-out MCG after the last couple of years. The silver-haired man next to me – a diehard Joel fan, knows every word to every song – remarks that the atmosphere feels like an AFL grand final.

Yet of course there is another wave of Covid ripping through the country, despite what we might desperately wish to believe. But the mood tonight is one of joy, against a cloudless sky with a single star on a balmy night, La Niña finally taking a night off after weeks of weird weather. Summer, at last.

Joel is, of course, a seasoned showman – this is the man who’s played a show a month at Madison Square Garden since 2014 (that’s 86 monthly shows so far), and promises to keep that residency up as long as the demand exists. Tonight, the banter is all scripted but it feels genuine, and so does he.

The 73-year-old jokes about the “good news and bad news”: that he hasn’t recorded anything new in close to 30 years, so we’re going to hear “the same shit you heard last time”. It’s true: Joel is unique in that he’s essentially been touring a greatest hits set for the last three decades. But it’s what the people want – and it’s what the people get.

There are little tweaks to the set for the occasion – Joel accompanies a Waltzing Matilda singalong and a small Santa hat sits atop the piano. He’s brought his family on tour, too – his two young daughters, aged 7 and 5, come out to look shyly out at the enormous crowd.

‘Joel is unique in that he’s essentially been touring a greatest hits set for the last three decades’ … Billy Joel at the MCG in Melbourne.
‘Joel is unique in that he’s essentially been touring a greatest hits set for the last three decades’ … Billy Joel at the MCG in Melbourne. Photograph: Future Publishing/Getty Images

Otherwise, it’s hit after hit over two and a half hours: My Life, The Entertainer, Vienna, She’s Always a Woman, New York State of Mind. They’re timeless classics, and Joel’s voice rings out clear as the backdrop changes with him: zany prints for Zanzibar, comic book-style animations for Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. That banter, again – after singing the incredibly romantic Just the Way You Are, he deadpans, “and then we got divorced”.

Joel’s band members are given time to shine with impressive, noodly solos. A couple of vocal solos are standouts, too – a rousing snippet of Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High by longtime backing vocalist Crystal Taliefero, and a set staple, rhythm guitarist Mike DelGuidice showing his operatic chops on Puccini’s Nessun dorma (and then flipping the script with a Led Zeppelin interlude later on – the range).

It’s all great fun, and it’s all precisely what you’d expect from this kind of blockbuster stadium show. The crowd is loving it, though there’s clearly a division between patrons who are willing to get up and have a boogie, and those who’d prefer to stay seated, thanks very much. Then Joel whips out a harmonica, and a woman behind me stands up, hands outstretched like a messiah, looking around her repeating “there it is”. And there it is.

An encore includes the tongue-twisting We Didn’t Start the Fire and a duet of Uptown Girl with opening act Tina Arena. Night has fallen by now, lit up by the twinkle of phone lights.

I can’t help but smile, on my walk back into town afterwards, when I think about the line in Piano Man: “it’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday”, and a moment later: “it’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while”. There’s still a lot in the world to worry about, but nights like this make it all feel a little more bearable for just a little while.