Billy Joel Plays Human Jukebox During Lively Austin Show: Review
Somewhere around the 90-minute mark of sitting in dead-stop traffic outside Austin's Formula One U.S. Grand Prix on Saturday night, despair became determination and I refused to go home without catching a glimpse of the evening’s musical headliner, Billy Joel.
On the brink of throwing in the towel, I finally found my entrance, hightailed it through the Circuit of the Americas' labyrinthine parking lot and sprinted through the venue gates as Joel began the ninth of his 19-song set. It wasn't a pretty struggle, and I probably broke more than a couple traffic laws in the process. But to quote the song Joel was singing as I waded past the 100,000-person crowd: I go to extremes.
So what'd I miss? Not much and a hell of a lot, depending on your perspective. Joel played human jukebox during his truncated set (an hour and 45 minutes vs. the usual two and a half), nixing most of his deep cuts and acerbic commentary in lieu of a familiar, rapid-fire rundown of hits that shaped the classic-rock canon over the course of three decades. It's hard to complain that he only played classics like "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," "The Entertainer," "My Life," "Only the Good Die Young" and "Piano Man" in breathless succession. It's even harder to believe all of those songs came from the same man.
That man, now 72, looked in fighting shape and sounded only a fraction of his age on Saturday, showing off his lithe falsetto in "Only the Good Die Young" and scaling those daunting "oh-oh-oh"s in "Uptown Girl" with ease. Without getting up from his piano bench, Joel took the audience on a journey through time during "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," the indelible jazz-rock opus that belongs in the pantheon of pocket symphonies right next to "A Day in the Life," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Good Vibrations."
Joel ended his main set with the obligatory "Piano Man," uncorking tear ducts with every puff of his harmonica. (Singing the first lyric — "It's nine o'clock on a Saturday" — right as the clock struck 9 was a nice touch.) But things really got interesting during his five-song encore, when he traded his piano for a blue Fender Stratocaster and led the audience in a full-throated sing-along of that ghastly chart-topper "We Didn't Start the Fire" without a hint of irony. And lest anybody question his agility, Joel twirled his microphone stand above his head like a pair of nunchucks during "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" — not quite as ferocious as his legendary Moscow freak-out but an impressive display nonetheless.
Props also belong to Joel's impeccable backing band, particularly guitarist Tommy Byrnes, who ripped blazing solos on "Big Shot" and "Sometimes a Fantasy," and singer and guitarist Michael DelGuidice, the Big Shot cover band leader whom Joel recruited for his touring lineup in 2013. DelGuidice handled lead vocals as the band segued into spirited renditions of ZZ Top's "Tush" during "The River of Dreams" and Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" during set closer "You May Be Right."
These covers have been in Joel's repertoire for years, but they took on a new poignance in the wake of the recent deaths of Dusty Hill and Charlie Watts (whom Joel honored at last month's Cincinnati show with covers of "Honky Tonk Women" and "Brown Sugar"). Frankly, there aren't many septuagenarians doing this at Joel's level anymore, and he now acts as a steward of rock 'n' roll history, paying tribute to the lost legends of a bygone era alongside his own encyclopedia of hits.
Sometimes a fantasy — and a good tour guide — is all you need.
Billy Joel, Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Oct. 23, 2021
"Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"
"Don't Ask Me Why"
"All for Leyna"
"I Go to Extremes" (with "Deep in the Heart of Texas" intro)
"Sometimes a Fantasy"
"Only the Good Die Young"
"The River of Dreams" (with "Tush" by ZZ Top)
"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"
"We Didn't Start the Fire"
"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"
"You May Be Right" (with "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin)