In 1974, Billy Joel released “The Entertainer,” a cynical take on fame and the fickleness of fan loyalty. In the opening
Those lines ring true for most musicians, but not Joel. He hasn't charted since the mid-'90s, but that's beside the point. His New Year's bash Thursday night at the BB&T Center in Sunrise served only to strengthen his memory in the minds of 20,000 fans as he showed South Florida what entertainment really looks like.
Perhaps one of his biggest fans of the evening was his opening act, Gavin Degraw. The 38-year-old singer/songwriter warmed up the crowd with a lively half-hour set that included the hits “Chariot” and “I Don't Want to Be.” He sang the latter from the stands as he did a victory lap around the lower-bowl section of the arena. The piano-rock crooner thanked Joel for this second stint on one of his tours and closed out his time onstage with a fun mashup of his own single “Not Over You” with Bryan Adam's classic power ballad “Heaven.” It was just the tiniest hint of the elastic and whimsical type of show yet to come.
Because of the occasion (New Year's Eve), the name on the marquee (Billy Joel), and the price of admission (more than a little), this had to be a spectacular show, and it absolutely was.
Billy Joel's entrance was preceded by a wondrous instrumental culled from what could have been an epic Spielbergian adventure. Once he took his seat on the rotating piano, Joel fiddled with Christmas-themed notes before blasting into “My Life.” For the remainder of the evening, Joel weaved his way through his discography with classics like “Pressure,” “This Is the Time,” “Moving Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” “She's Always a Woman,” and “River of Dreams.”
Before each song, Joel would name the album it appeared on and was mostly successful in recalling the dates of their debuts. Since he hasn't released a new pop album of original work since 1993, any concert he does these days is a retrospective. His identifying of time and place weren't so much about his own career; they were used more as a point of reference for us.
Actor and comedian Kevin James came out at one point to goof around on the piano, nailing the first few opening bars of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” before giving up, frustrated that he was unable to remember the rest, and jokingly commenting, “This thing is way out of tune.” Before he left, though, he echoed the gratitude of many by saying that Joel's music shaped the lives of people and that his songs bring back memories of where we were at certain places in our lives. It was a spot-on statement considering the everlasting memories being made right there and then.
James wasn't the only comic of the night. Joel himself was very funny, calling Elton John “the other one” and doing a snippet of “Your Song"; he messed around with “Changes” by David Bowie; and he did his own hilarious interpretation of Frank Sinatra's “It Was a Very Good Year,” using his own improved lyrics, “When I was 17... I don't remember what I did when I was 17” and “When I was 66, I lost all of my hair, I really don't care.”
In the final minutes before the clock struck 12, two special guests jumped onstage to greet 2016: radio shock jock Howard Stern and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. As if to answer the question as to why the random appearance, Stern said one, the tickets were free, and two, “It's too fucking cold in New York.”
We did the countdown, cheered among the confetti drop, and hugged and kissed those around us, but the show was far, far from over. The house lights wouldn't come on until around 1 a.m., as Joel wound up playing about two and a half glorious hours.
For the encore, he left the comfort of his piano and danced with the microphone nearly the entire time. He brought out the big guns such as “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Only the Good Die Young.” He traded in for a guitar on “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and, under pink lighting, flexed, posed, and generally enjoyed the silly doo-wop energy of “Uptown Girl.” At 66, Joel is still full of so much vigor and wasn't shy about indulging in kooky gestures and gyrations.
This second half of the show was more straightforward, with its wall-to-wall structure of continuous greatest hits. It was like an entirely new concert. Degraw returned to the stage for “You May Be Right,” playing the part of the “lunatic” in the song, hanging off the shoulders of the guitarist, and singing a frenzied duet with Joel, moving about like a drunk Mick Jagger.
Speaking of classic rock, Joel thrilled the crowd with spirited covers of the Beatles' “Hard Day's Night” and three Led Zeppelin tracks: “Fool in the Rain,” “Good Times, Bad Times,” and “Dazed and Confused.”
The last song of the night was, of course, “Piano Man.” The crowd knew at once what was next as soon as Joel donned a harmonica-playing device that looked about as comfortable as a neck brace after a car accident.
Billy Joel has more money than he knows what to do with. In other words, he doesn't need to do shows like this. Instead, it's clear that he loves performing and enjoys working on one of the biggest holidays of the year. He wanted to be in South Florida as much as we wanted to be in the audience.
Better yet, 40 years in and the piano man