Billy Joel, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, 7/09/2016, It's All About the Shared Experience With 30,000 Of Your Closest Friends; Christina Perri Opened
Photos courtesy of Billy Joel
The Billy Joel faithful converged on Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last night to partake in what has become one of the rites of summer. Joel delivered a tight twenty-six song set packed with hits and favorite album tracks. He joked at the beginning that this wasn't one of those concerts where you have to sit through the artist's new album, which was pretty much stating the obvious since he hasn't released a new pop record since 1993. But that's okay, his fans still come out in droves whenever he plays live, and this was his fifth time performing at a Phillies' ballpark. He has sold out the New York baseball stadiums many times and he became the first artist in residence at Madison Square Garden recently, playing a monthly concert at that venue, I believe selling out the place regularly.
As you can see on the setlist below, there was no letup; he'd go from one great song right into another, to the crowd's delight.
With all of the joy taking place around me, I couldn't escape the feeling that something was off. In all of the excitement of the big time rock show, the first casualty seemed to be the music. It wasn't the performances; Joel was on his game and his band was an assemblage of super talented musicians. So what was it?
Let's start with the sound. It was loud, sure, but I don't have any problem with loud. It was the quality of the sound. It reminded me of what it would sound like if you played a friend's cheap stereo and turned it up so loud that the sound would begin to distort. Joel's voice was amplified plenty loud, loud enough to hold its own with the band in most situations. It was so loud in fact that Joel lost a lot of the nuance that he puts into a song. A few times it sounded like he backed off the mike for a more realistic sound to his voice. Unfortunately, when all the band played at once in high gear, like on "Sometimes a Fantasy", the band tended to distort and drown Joel out. This was especially bad on "We Didn't Start the Fire", which is his most lyric driven song. Watching the crowd dance and sing during that song made it evident that the majority of the audience didn't notice, didn't care, or had this song so ingrained for so long that it didn't really matter. Joel's solo piano, like on the intro to "New York State of Mind", almost sounded rinky-dink, like Schroeder's toy piano in the Peanuts cartoons.
I've seen many a stadium show and I've heard the outdoor sound technology develop from irrelevant (The Beatles at JFK Stadium where the crowd drowned out the band), to bad (Grand Funk at Shea Stadium, which Rolling Stone Magazine described as "the world's largest transistor radio", to excellent (Bruce Springsteen at Veteran's Stadium on the Born to Run tour). At that last one, every instrument was crystal clear and it was so loud that you literally could feel every beat of the bass drum right in your chest. That was back in 1985, so to my way of thinking, there's no excuse for last night's show sounding the way it did. But the sound quality wasn't the only thing bothering me.
For a little over twenty years, starting in 1971, Billy Joel wrote and recorded an incredible body of work, one that solidly puts him on a level with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Last night, I was wondering what makes a crowd this size shell out for overpriced tickets, overpriced parking, overpriced food and beverage, and overpriced merchandise, not to mention the time, energy, and traffic involved in attending a stadium show. Last night a lot of money changed hands, in the millions of dollars. I think that this gets to the heart of what else was bothering me. This amazing catalog of music was being reduced to a commodity, and while that notion may be "quaint" in the cold, hard reality of the music business, I grew up in an era when the music was everything and the concert experience was sacrosanct.
Photo: Anna Kates
The pieces fell into place during "Piano Man", a definite highlight of the show and Joel's last song of the set. As he sang, the crowd sang right along with him, not just a verse or a chorus, but the entire song. I guess Joel is used to this because near the end of it, Joel and the band drop out leaving the crowd to sing the final chorus. Regardless of how many times you've seen a Springsteen crowd do the same thing on the first verse of "Hungry Heart", it was still an electrifying moment. The crowd also reacted when he sang, "It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday". I think that the lyrics of "Piano Man" held some clue to this music as commodity/stadium show business.
It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about life for a while...
That's exactly it, "it's me they've been comin' to see to forget about life for a while". In addition to the obvious good time (or maybe contributing to it), there was plenty of beer flowing and at one point Joel commented on the aroma of the smoke wafting over the stage. At the end of the day it was all about the shared experience of a Billy Joel concert.
Early on in the set, Joel played "The Entertainer", his commentary on the music business circa 1974. After playing it, Joel joked, "I didn't know what I was talking about" (back then). Regarding the lyric, "And I won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts", he quipped, "I haven't been on the charts in twenty-three years." The irony that Joel's jab at the music business was now part of his million dollar commodity was not lost on him, or me.
The set opened nicely with Miami 2017 followed by "My Life", which used Bach's "Ode to Joy" as an intro. Joel came right back with "Just the Way You Are", arguably one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Every song in the set was beloved, but I was really happy to hear "And So It Goes".
The news has been so awful lately that I wasn't expecting Joel to comment on it unless he had something very heartfelt or substantive to say. But, bring it up he did, and after a pause he said, "If I had a gun I'd shoot my TV", pause, "This is the City of Brotherly Love", pause, "I've always gotten a lot of love from this city", pause, "We'll get through it", pause, "You just have to keep the faith." With that he launched into "Keeping the Faith". I wasn't alone in thinking it was somewhat of a disappointment to hear him use this week's events as a song intro in this way.
Even still, "Keeping The Faith" is a great song and I was glad to hear it. Next up was "I Go to Extremes", an unexpected pleasure. My daughter went in hoping to hear "The River of Dreams" and he played it next, complete with a mid-song excursion into a Beatles cover, "A Hard Day's Night". That lead into Joel's classic "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and he totally had the crowd in the palm of his hand setting up "Piano Man".
The encore lasted a good twenty minutes (see setlist), and the party revved up a couple of notches as the song selection was classic rock show, leading up to "You May Be Right" which included a slice of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll", a song which actually benefitted from the stadium sound. After that Joel closed the night with "Only the Good Die Young" and sent everyone home dancing and happy. And that was what it was all about.
Christina Perri at the Mann Center for Performing Arts, 2015 (photo courtesy of popentertainmentblog.com)
Christina Perri played a valiant opening set, full of energy and excitement despite the fact that some of the crowd was still entering and the overcooked sound was less than optimal. Still it was good to hear "A Thousand Years", which was the next to last number of her seven song set. She closed with "Only Human", which got her a nice ovation from the crowd and ended her set on a happy note. Perri talked about growing up in Bensalem, PA and that she realized early on that music was her life but she never dreamed that one day she would be performing at the Phillies' stadium or that she would be opening for Billy Joel. Perri was a good choice for opening act.
Setlist (courtesy of setlist.fm)
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
My Life (with 'Ode to Joy' intro)
Just the Way You Are
Big Man on Mulberry Street
New York State of Mind (with 'Rhapsody in Blue' snippet)
Prelude/Angry Young Man (first since 3/11/2010)
And So It Goes
She's Always a Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Edward Meeker cover)
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Sometimes a Fantasy
Keeping the Faith
I Go to Extremes
The River of Dreams (with 'A Hard Day's Night' (The Beatles) snippet)
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' (Led Zeppelin) snippet)
Only the Good Die Young
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