Billy Joel review: juiced-up hits with a sting in the tail

While the hits didn’t quite flow at the Aviva Stadium, they did arrive at a dutiful clip

Billy Joel during his concert at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Billy Joel during his concert at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

There are misunderstood pop stars and then there’s Billy Joel. The 1980s hit-maker is a product of the same blue collar milieu that gave the world Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and his best songs are similarly paved with grit and underdog romance. Yet where his peers are lauded as true American voices, Joel is dismissed as a trafficker in schmaltz, showboating at his piano.

With record sales in excess of 150 million and a Madison Square Garden residency that sees him play the venue once every month, lack of critical respect is unlikely to keep the now 69-year-old up at night. Nonetheless, he seemed keen to demonstrate he was more than a mere peddler in baubles at his well-attended Aviva Stadium concert on Saturday.

The good news was that he’d ditched the rotating piano that was such a distraction at his previous Irish show in 2013. He’d juiced up the set-list too, bunging in bittersweet singalongs She’s Always A Woman and My Life alongside more abstruse selections.

However, it was with the latter that his heart often appeared to lie. The Downeaster Alexa offered a street-level view of life in an ailing fishing town along the North Atlantic seaboard and Allentown decried the deindustrialisation ripping the soul out of middle class America.

These are the sort of songs Springsteen might write if he got past his own mythology and it was brave of Joel to roll them out as the two-hour performance headed towards the final curtain. Not all of the Saturday night crowd, it is true, were up for the obscurities – though he at least didn’t follow through with Goodnight Saigon, his feature-length rumination on the Vietnam War.

Billy Joel: sang a snippet of On Raglan Road – and just about managed to not ruin it. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
Billy Joel: sang a snippet of On Raglan Road – and just about managed to not ruin it. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The hits didn’t quite flow – Joel is too garrulous to serve up a big fat jukebox set – but they arrived at dutiful clip. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) was a spiky two-fingered ballad to his upwardly mobile peers back in Long Island while the Longest Time tapped the doo-wop and soul music of Joel’s youth. Most affecting of all was Piano Man, an evergreen dissection of loneliness and the pain that often lies behind troweled-on machismo.

The inevitable hat-tip to local sensibilities took the form of a snippet of On Raglan Road. Joel just about managed to not ruin it, notwithstanding his tilt at an Irish accent (he sounded like Robert De Niro method acting his way through a Ronnie Drew biopic).

There were laughs too. Joel had fun heckling later-arrivers looking for their seats. He also acknowledged that, heavy-set and goateed, he bore the faintest of resemblances to the gyrating pop star of the Uptown Girl video (“What can I say? I got old”).

Seated for much of the evening, during the encore he returned with a guitar strapped on to belt out the aforementioned hit – a pop soufflé that wryly commented on the class schisms that even a chart-topper with the world at his feet can bump up against (he wrote it while dating supermodel Christie Brinkley). It was classic Joel: catchy but with a sting in the tail and a hangdog glimmer in the eye.

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