It’s September, and the Reds remain in the playoff hunt, but that doesn’t mean that they can draw a bigger crowd in Cincinnati than Billy Joel.
It was a sellout of 36,395 at Great American Ball Park for Joel, in town on Friday making up a COVID-canceled date from last year.
Performing on a stage built in centerfield and facing home plate, Joel and his eight-person band’s two-hour, 24-song set was thoroughly enjoyable.
“It’s a year later,” said Joel, 72, decked out in a dark shirt, dark tie, dark pants and dark sport coat. “Thank you for waiting.”
Of those 24 songs, most were hits. He understood why people purchased tickets. Joel is not the sort of classic rocker who tests material created in the current millennium on a live audience wanting to hear songs from the previous one. In fact, he hasn’t released an album of new pop songs in nearly 30 years.
“So I got nothing new for you,” he said, seated at a black baby grand with a flyswatter in hand, keeping away the bugs drawn to his spotlight. “Same old (stuff). But we know how to play it by now.”
“The Piano Man.” “My Life.” “You May Be Right.” “Always a Woman.” “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” “Uptown Girl.” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” “Big Shot.” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” “Only the Good Die Young.” “Movin’ Out.” “New York State of Mind.” That’s half of them. And even the casual Billy Joel fans assembled probably knew most of the other half.
In three instances, he let the crowd pick the tune between two choices. The winners, as determined by applause, were “Vienna” over “Just the Way You Are,” “The Downeaster ‘Alexa' ” over “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” over “I Go to Extremes.”
The show had two Cincinnati-specific moments. He performed “Zanzibar,” changing the line about Charlie Hustle in the 1978 song from “Rose, he knows he’s such a credit to the game” to “Rose, he knows he’ll never make the Hall of Fame.”
Joel recalled a 1970s show at the Cincinnati Gardens (the internet suggests it might have been at another venue in town) opening for Procol Harum. “Nobody cheered, nobody cared,” he said. He took a brief pause to look out upon the sold-out room before adding: “Life’s funny.” He and the band broke into Procol’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” They only did the first four lines, but it sounded great, and it would have been nice had they done the whole thing.
There were more English classic-rock snippets to follow: a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” during the show-closing “You May Be Right” and some of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” interspersed with “The River of Dreams,” a strange pairing to be sure. Later, during the encore, came more Stones: a cover of “Brown Sugar,” which Joel dedicated to the late drummer Charlie Watts.
One of the best moments of the show was a performance of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” sung by Joel’s guitar player Mike DelGuidice with Joel accompanying on piano. It’s certainly neither a rock-radio staple nor a Billy Joel classic, but the crowd loved it anyway. Maybe the crowd and Joel are, in fact, ready for a new tune or two in the setlist.