What do you do on a Friday night in Florida when you’re Billy Joel, the Piano Man, another entertainer in another long-haired band, and you’re a billion shows into the same never-ending comeback, playing the same old memories for nearly 20,000 Johns at the bar?
Easy: You put the angry back in Angry Young Man, and strap on a guitar.
“I’m 70 now, so I don’t care anymore. It’s a fun age," Joel told a sold-out Amalie Arena in Tampa Friday night, shortly after power-chording through feisty opener We Didn’t Start the Fire.
“Let me ask you a question: We can do a setlist of all hits. Or we can do a mix of hits and album tracks. Or we could just play Led Zeppelin s--- all night."
The sold-out crowd cheered for all three choices, and Joel, back at his piano, teased Kashmir — but you knew it was, well, just a fantasy, not the real thing. Still, throughout his fourth Tampa show in seven years, Joel mixed his set up from the norm, just like he does at Madison Square Garden, leaning into songs that bristled with the wry angst and bittersweet joy of his catalog.
To borrow from the perfect Summer, Highland Falls — a song he hasn’t played in Tampa in decades, yet he dropped early in Friday’s feels-forward set — it was neither just sadness nor euphoria. It was both.
“This is for all the manic depressives in the house,” Joel smirked before that one. “They got a new name for you now. What’s it called? What is it? Normal?”
Such bite! So black! And Joel, who’s lived through his share of dark times, has earned the right; the pulchritude of his piano pop is matched only by the poison of his pen. Before The Downeaster Alexa, noodling around on his harpsichordian ivories, Joel found himself meandering into that classical wedding staple, Pachelbel’s Canon.
“And then we got married...” he said, dreamily narrating some imagined recollection of a love story. “And then we got divorced...”
As good as his MSG-assisted winter years have been for him, you could sense a lingering, snarling defiance in all his prickly hits: The confrontational muscle of My Life, the drunken posturing of Zanzibar, the wiry dissatisfaction of Sometimes a Fantasy. He even donned blackout shades — a nod to onetime Florida man Ray Charles, perhaps? — for a properly bluesy New York State of Mind.
He knew not all of it was for everyone. After dusting off the go-go-sax-solo-tastic Modern Woman, a rarely performed cut from 1986′s The Bridge, Joel groused the words he imagined every confused fan was thinking: “I don’t know this one. Sounds very ’80s.”
If you were a Joel fanatic who’d broken the bank for every recent Tampa visit, you had to love the deep cuts and mix-'em-ups, like a cover of the Beatles’ I Feel Fine, or a mini-cover of ZZ Top’s Tush into River of Dreams (kudos if you can figure out how those two fit, but it was just that kind of night).
If, on the other hand, you were a first-timer etching him off your bucket list, you may have just been waiting for all those solid-gold singles. And Joel, consummate pro that he is, delivered: Only the Good Die Young, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant, Allentown, Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) and so many more, all pounded out with a little extra oomph, each prompting a chorus from the crowd.
For the encore, Joel came out crooning and doo-wopping on Uptown Girl, swiveling through It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me, and swinging haymakers through Big Shot and You May Be Right.
And you know what? In that last one, he even wove in a little bit of Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll. It wasn’t a full set of Plant and Page, but it showed you how Joel’s heart is beating in 2020. That pudgy little punk with the guitar from the beginning of the night would be proud.