TAMPA — If you think Billy Joel is showing a few hard-earned miles these days, you're not alone. "I keep seeing my dad up there!" the 64-year-old lord of Long Island cracked as he gazed at a screen bearing his gray visage Friday at a sold-out Tampa Bay Times Forum. "I didn't think I was going to end up looking like him. I kept thinking, one day —pop! — Cary Grant. Didn't happen."
Nevertheless, if our black-suited Piano Man appears more like a bug-eyed funeral director than a rock star in the year 2013 — his 50th in showbiz — he still sounds awesomely angry and restless and harrumphingly happy to be here, one of the great pop craftsmen and slyly contrarian showmen of our lifetime. And I'm willing to bet the all-ages local crowd of 20,007 that cheered and warbled and belted along with him would robustly agree.
Joel hasn't released a pop album in two decades, but in between stubborn layoffs and grumpy snubs of the business that birthed him, he continues to hit the road, sometimes with sparring pal Elton John, sometimes, most blissfully, with a crack band versed in guitar-ripped rock and brass-blaring R&B.
From the tingly opening notes of Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway), with its bittersweet Florida shout-out, the near two-hour show was rife with deep, sublime album cuts (when he played Vienna and The Entertainer, I might have wept — maybe) and an endless river of dreamy hits that helped raise us into music lovers (Pressure, My Life, Allentown).
"If you have to go to the bathroom, this would be a good time," he smirked before launching into the robustly post-punk Sleeping With the Television On, from 1980's Glass Houses — and which is anything but a toilet-break tune. Oh, and for those of you who ducked out during 52nd Street's jazz-driven Zanzibar instead — big mistake. Killer flugelhorn solo, dudes!
Joel spent a long time on the top of the charts, and yet give the man credit for the street-corner-prog arrangements of Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) and the life-affirming Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, which are so hummable and yet musically complex it's still a marvel to hear them unveil.
Joel kept medicinal mouth spray at the ready ("I saw Madonna use this once — it didn't help her much"), but his voice was relatively full and limber.
Joel rewarded diehards with relative rarities early on (All for Leyna, And So It Goes), but soon enough started checking off the know-'em-by-hearters: New York State of Mind, Don't Ask Me Why, and, of course, Piano Man, for which he allowed the throngs to warble a glorious chunk.
He spent most of the show seated at a slowly rotating black baby grand. ("That's it for special effects," he deadpanned.) But he stood and twirled the mic stand like the world's oldest drum major for an encore of It's Still Rock and Roll to Me. Then came a bare-knuckle-brawling cover of You May Be Right, the preferred car song of my two preteen daughters.
Joel is currently doing a residency at New York City's Madison Square Garden, a string of hometown shows sold out until the fall. That historic booking has the faint air of a wistful goodbye. But from the sound of Friday's gig-closing Only the Good Die Young, this isn't the last time we'll see him on our fair shores. We're not done waving Brenda and Eddie goodbye, and Billy Joel isn't done giving us the chance.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.