I had the privilege of seeing Billy Joel play Toronto’s Air Canada Center this past Sunday, and it was a treat. Having seen many pro bands deliver tight, well rehearsed 3-hour shows as part of a multi-city concert tour, it is easy to get used to cool professionalism washed in the magic purple of stage lighting. But with Billy Joel, you get all of that along with a remarkable intimacy that turns the cavernous concert arena into a merely oversized cocktail bar, with the seasoned piano man himself tinkling the ivories.
His opening joke – “Billy Joel couldn’t make it tonight – I’m his father” actually works, especially when he pauses, mid monologue, to look up at himself on the scoreboard jumbotron thing, and say, “I look so much like my old man…” before turning back to the crowd with that twinkle in his eye that seems to say that he genuinely enjoys sharing these anecdotes and stories with an appreciative crowd.
It makes you wonder whether the spontaneous rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” was truly spontaneous – I mean did the band rehearse, or are they, as I would like to believe – just that good that they can play any tune that the master summons up?
The show moved through a number of his lesser-known pieces, such as Vienna, before ending up with his most successful upbeat rock tunes. Even the train wreck that occurred during “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he tripped over the words after straying too far from the teleprompter and forced the band to restart did nothing to calm the energy of the full house crowd that stayed standing through the entire second half of the show.
He is a giant in the business, but he talks to his audience like he is everyone’s grandpa now, the way Bill Cosby does. Responding to a song request shouted out from one of the front rows, he said, “No! I’m 65. I’ll get to it when I’m ready!” But again, the wink and the smile in his voice showed a good-natured comfort that can only come from decades of live performance.
Technical virtuosity aside, what struck me the most about Billy Joel was the way he connected with the audience. He knew he was actually in Toronto (not every act seems to know or care where they are), and his stories of playing Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens, and his recognition that his absence from the city during the 2003 SARS outbreak meant that “we sucked here for a while” added a connection that everyone felt. It was also appreciated by many that his drummer wore a Maple Leafs jersey.