Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's Still Billy Joel to Me (at MSG)

If there's a performer I've seen more times than anyone else, it's Billy Joel.

If there's a venue where I've seen him before more times than anywhere else, it's Madison Square Garden.

From Glass Houses to River of Dreams to New Years 1999 to 12 Gardens to his "franchise" stop on Friday, April 18, 2012, if he's been there, we've been there.

Now Billy has his critics as well as his fans, as they are legion. They want to know why he released his last original album in July 1993 and has essentially became a touring oldies act for the past 21 years – a period longer than his original recording career.

I straddle the fence. For New Years 1999, it was kind of nice to see a "big" concert in Manhattan and not have to deal with Times Square. And we were "only" six years out of River of Dreams, so there was still the hope, an inkling of hope, that a new album was just around the corner.

That thought was shot to hell by 12 Gardens, an ambitious engagement meant to shatter attendance records. But it was 13 years since River of Dreams – and a few years (2001) to be exact) since his classic noodling, FANTASIES AND DELUSIONS.

Billy has continually stated that he felt "thwarted" by the constraints of pop music. When Howard Stern interviewed him in November 2010, he went even further. Billy said that after 9/11, he suffered from writer's block and became unable to write new material. No kidding. His output since 1993 has consisted of two songs, one a cover of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" for GREATEST HITS VOLUME 3 and "All My Life," a 2006 tune for (then) new bride Katie Lee. The only one of his three "wifely" tunes not to make a big splash, it's ironic that he has not performed it live anywhere, considering it's his most recent composition. And he HAS performed "Uptown Girl" and "Just the Way You Are" numerous times.

But there we were on April 18, back at MSG, back to see Billy Joel. Back for the first time with our 13-year-old son, to introduce him to the guy who wrote all those songs he hears on the radio and in the car. "I look like my father," Billy told the crowd. Well, at 64, them's the breaks with genetics.

Billy played entirely from his own catalog. Tellingly, when he strayed, he went OLDER – doing a few verses from the Beatles and Elton John, leading to a punchline. You got no sense of a performer who stayed in touch with modern trends or even more recent entertainers. I'm not saying Billy Joel should be covering "Blurred Lines." But is there really no other material he'd like to attempt that isn't covered in dust, ivy, or moss?

Sadly, it's time to enact some tough love for Billy Joel. His newest CD? A re-release of his "Bridge to Russia" concert...from 1988. The hook? It includes songs that were cut to make room on the vinyl record.

Twenty-one years is long enough to wait. Hell, if you were born on the release date of RIVER OF DREAMS, you are now counting the days until you can legally drink! And believe me, when I think about that, it's enough to make ME want to have a drink. Billy Joel has not released an album of original material in 21 years!

Hell, even James Taylor has Billy beat. James released new albums in 1997 and 2002 and an album blatantly called COVERS in 2008. James performs as many if not more concerts every year than Billy Joel. Admittedly, he's made hits out of many songs that were written and first performed by others. But he hasn't given up the ghost. Even when he was tapped out, he resorted to cover tunes to otherwise break up a 12-year barren streak.

Twenty-one years. By the time our younger son is ready for a Billy Joel concert, Billy will be closing in on 70. I'm holding out the slim hope that Billy will have made a breakthrough and penned some new songs between now and 2020. But I'm not holding my breath. And ultimately, if he's still performing concerts at MSG, we'll be there. Maybe for less than $200 per ticket, too.
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