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Review: Billy Joel rips through the hits, honors David Bowie, Glenn Frey at Tampa's Amalie Arena



We East Coasters take Billy Joel for granted.

Though it feels like he’s perpetually teetering on the edge of retirement, he’s actually passed through Tampa Bay quite a bit in the past decade and a half – at least seven times since 2002. Compare that to a city like San Francisco, which until last fall Joel hadn’t played in 40 years. Forty!

Yeah, it’s nice being a regular layover in the life of one of pop’s greatest songsmiths. Especially on those nights when he brings the fire with a night of wall-to-wall-to-wall hits, as was the case Friday at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

For two and a half hours, Joel bucked the conventional playbook of his recent renaissance – more deep cuts, maybe not quite all the singles – and instead dropped a rock 'em, sock 'em hit parade on the sold-out crowd of 20,032.

And you know what? It was a beautiful thing. As we’ve too often seen in 2016, you never want to take your heroes for granted. It’s best to appreciate their best and most brilliant work before they die young, as so many good ones tend to do.

Joel knows it as well as anyone. In his first concert in two weeks, he paid tribute to “a great musician who’s not with us anymore, David Bowie,” with a brief but electric ride through Rebel Rebel. And in honor of Eagles singer Glenn Frey, he interrupted River of Dreams for a free-wheeling ride through Take It Easy, and elsewhere delivered a full, solo, heartfelt Desperado.

“You better let somebody love you,” he sang.

“Let somebody love you!” the crowd cried back.

Yeah, tonight was a night to show Billy Joel some love – and for him to do the same for all of us.

All his iconic characters made their expected appearances, all to their usual standing ovations and sing-alongs – Brenda and Eddie, Anthony and Mama Leone, his old buddy John at the bar – but so did a few we haven’t seen in a while. Like the motley, ripped-from-the-headlines cast of We Didn’t Start the Fire, during which Joel, rocking a guitar instead of a grand, had the fans in the front rows leaping with delight. And the hardscrabble fishermen of The Downeaster Alexa, a passionate crowd-pleaser Joel hasn’t played here in ages.

These days, even Joel’s so-called “rarities” play like well-rehearsed wonders – roaring opener Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway); proggy space-punk buzzsaw Sometimes a Fantasy; and the woozy, rambling knockout Zanzibar, which Joel and his band jammed out to a satisfactory spicy finale.

But it’s not like the fans were clamoring for B-sides. Twice, Joel offered them a “fielder’s choice” of what song to play next, and both times, the more popular tune won out – Vienna over This Is the Time, and The Longest Time over An Innocent Man. No complaints from Joel either time.

Joel frequently teased a few bars of a cover – Elton John’s Your Song, the MarvelowsI Do, Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love and Rock and Roll, Joe Cocker’s You Are So Beautiful (“Another great musician who’s not with us anymore,” he added). And every now and then, his wry sense of humor would come out to play. He dedicated The Entertainer to Donald Trump, and New York State of Mind to Sen. Ted Cruz. “These are my values, Ted,” he offered.

At a certain point, the hits began to overwhelm, in the best possible way. Seriously, after churning out Piano Man for the 10,000th time, what can Billy Joel possibly do for an encore?

Well, he plays Uptown Girl, swiveling his hips like Elvis. And It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me, twirling his mic stand like a drum major’s mace. And Big Shot, spitting each lyric with acidic passion. And You May Be Right, rocking on his stool like it's about to teeter from its roots. And Only The Good Die Young, with all the sinners in the house dancing the entire time. He could’ve gone on for days, so robust and stellar is his songbook, and the fans on this night would’ve let him.

By the end, everyone had to feel lucky to be there – the fans, for the chance to hear Joel spin through his greatest hits with a smile; Joel, to still be singing them at 66.

“I wrote these songs and I recorded them when I was in my early 30s,” he said, “never thinking that I would have to sing them in my 60s.”

We should never take for granted that he is.

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2016 11:25am]


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