One of the lesser-known songs that Billy Joel performed Friday at Wrigley Field was “The Entertainer,” a caustic bit of showbiz commentary that includes the line, “I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts.”
The young man who wrote that song for his 1974 album “Streetlife Serenade” was still trying to find his footing as a singer/songwriter/pianist.
The 65-year-old man who sang it at this sold-out baseball stadium hasn’t had a song on the charts in 17 years and hasn’t released an album of new non-classical material in more than 20.
So Billy Joel knows a few things now that he didn’t know then, even if all he’s singing is what he did know way back when, with a set list spanning from 1973 (“Piano Man”) to 1993 (“The River of Dreams”) His two exuberant hours shared with an all-ages Wrigley crowd were a testament to the Entertainer’s staying power.
Joel has covered much stylistic ground in his career, sometimes as conscious homage (the pre-Beatles-era tributes of his “An Innocent Man” album) and sometimes as a channeling mish-mash-up of such varied influences as former tourmate Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Tin Pan Alley songwriters, jazz players, New Wavers and Paul McCartney.
Although Joel's ornery streak may not be in line with McCartney's unflagging optimism, that comparison may be most apt — the post-Beatles McCartney in particular— as many of Joel’s songs are easy to nitpick (the “graduations” that hang on the wall in “Allentown,” the redundancy of “Now you parlez-vous francais” in “Don’t Ask Me Why”), yet as a whole they become undeniable. Joel may have aspired at times to be the social commentator that John Lennon was, yet his gift was a McCartneyesque type of craftsmanship that triggers an urge to sing along with hook after hook.
And so they did at Wrigley. When you hear these songs clustered together, you realize that Joel has a special knack for group-participation interjections: the “WHA-oh-oh!” of the snappily played, jazzy shuffle “Zanzibar”; the “Oh-oh-oh-oh” of the New Wave-aspiring rocker “Sometimes a Fantasy”; the “Hey-ey-ey” of “Allentown,” Joel’s lament for blue-collar workers that managed to be melancholy and rollicking, no small feat; the “OH-oh, OH-oh…" of the giddily sprawling “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” which had tens of thousands of Chicagoans waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye; the “La la-la dih-dee-dah” of the inevitable “Piano Man” swayathon; the “Oh-OH-oh-oh-oh” of a crunching “Big Shot” and the emphatic “Ho!” of a convincingly rocking “You May Be Right.”
Wearing a black jacket, black shirt and mostly black tie, a gray goatee his only visible hair, Joel entered to Randy Newman’s “The Natural” theme and strummed the electric guitar riff to his 1986 hit “A Matter of Trust,” which sounded as ‘80s as you remembered it, as did the synth breaks and thudding beat of the subsequent “Pressure.” For most of the show Joel sat at a grand piano that often rotated 180 degrees mid-song, though for “Uptown Girl” and “An Innocent Man,” the latter of which drew cheers as he hit the high notes of “I ammmmm…,” he stalked the front of the stage carrying the microphone stand.
He may no longer look like the Brillo-haired fellow who recorded these songs, but he sure sounds like him.
Eight versatile players backed Joel, some doubling on horns and percussion. McCartney’s United Center concert earlier this month may have been a more epic, emotionally stirring affair, but give Joel props for bringing a real horn section, which galvanized “Movin’ Out” (one of five songs performed from his strongest album, “The Stranger”) and added key solos to “Zanzibar” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” rather than going the synthesized horn route a la Sir Paul.
The band was professional to a fault, which is to say that they were just about flawless without particularly pushing their frontman. Joel doesn’t tear into “Only the Good Die Young” like he used to, but given the subject matter (“You Catholic girls start much too late"), maybe that’s just as well.
It’s a sign of Joel’s formidable tunefulness that he had couples arm in arm and heads on shoulders for “She’s Always a Woman,” which sounds like a nice song but isn’t. The music wins out almost every time, which is why everyone was happy to join in on the Me Generation kiss-off chorus of the peppy “My Life” as if it’s some universal empowerment statement.
Fans voted via cheers to hear one of his prettiest tunes, 1977’s “Vienna,” rather than the mid-‘80s ballad “This Is the Time.” He dropped “My Kind of Town” into the middle of “The River of Dreams,” sang a verse of Elton John’s “Your Song” before stopping to ridicule the “don’t have much money” line and had a roadie named Chainsaw come out to sing AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” while he riffed and strutted on an electric guitar. Well, sure.
He didn’t play his breakthrough hit, “Just the Way You Are,” or his last (and most annoying) No. 1, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
He also made no reference to this being his first concert since the death of his 92-year-old mother, Rosalind Nyman Joel, the previous Sunday. She’s the subject of his affectionate 1978 ballad “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” but he didn’t play it, and far be it from us to judge how he grieves or chooses to honor his late mother. The song’s undercurrent is her belief in him and his desire to reward that, and there he was, uplifting multiple generations in a packed Wrigley Field, the Entertainer till the end.
1. “A Matter of Trust”