Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vols. I-III

San Antonio state of mind extends a 26-year ATX drought

Billy Joel last played Austin in 1990 on the Storm Front tour. While the Erwin Center would’ve killed for a return engagement this past weekend, having also hosted him in ’87 and ’82, Friday’s sell-out at the AT&T Center in San Antonio proved why the Bronx-born son of a German classical pianist remains one of the most commercially successful pop acts ever.

Photo by Gary Miller

God bless the not-so-angry young man, 67, for knowing when to stop and when to pound on. After 12 studio albums beginning in 1971, Joel ceased rocking LPs after 1993’s River of Dreams, releasing only one other disc after that, classical indulgence Fantasies & Delusions in 2001. Why suffer decades of subpar work when 10-15 years of recording prime remains the best most Rock & Roll Hall of Famers not named Bob Dylan can hope for?

“Don’t you hate it when bands play new material?” cracked the famously self-anointed Piano Man after thanking the second largest concert throng in the Alamo City this year (after Garth Brooks) for still showing up in droves.

Striving for contemporary relevance and the need for self-expression on a public stage still drives a peer like Bruce Springsteen, also 67, but as composer of the midpoint entry on the Top 10 best-selling albums list (1985’s Greatest Hits Volume I and II), Joel’s privy to an exclusive pinnacle. Not only can he afford to rest on his standards, that’s what 18,000-plus wanted with all their hearts.

“Last time I was here was with another piano player,” he nodded after “Pressure,” two songs into two-and-a-half hours.

Sitting at a black grand that swiveled left then right to face both sides of the arena and backed by a sevenpiece band, Joel then launched a snippet of Elton’s John’s “Your Song,” an evening tactic that veered Tex-centric (“Piece of My Heart,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Tush”), holiday (“Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”), and even hard rock (a full rendition of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” sung by one of the roadies). “Piano Man” means playing any request from Sixth Street to Tin Pan Alley. He paused at the (Bernie Taupin) lyric “I don’t have much money, but boy if I did.”

“Excuse me?” he smirked. “You don’t? You’re full of shit.”

He laughed.

“And we both have the same amount of hair,” he added. “He just has a better rug maker.”

He wasn’t done poking fun, explaining his “stoned” looks.

“My old man looked like this,” he said proudly. “I just looked like this my whole life.”

Wobbly of hips and even more unsteady twirling a mic stand at the end of the evening, Joel didn’t need to strap on a guitar for his Angus Young moment, nor summon his Eighties Jerry Lee Lewis antics. Piano stool, meet the maker of “New York State of Mind,” a song that even now George Gershwin swears he wrote from the great beyond. Moreover, Joel’s hits weren’t isolated incidents between The Stranger (’77) and An Innocent Man (’89) in that album tracks often matched singles in quality control.

Thus “Zanzibar” assumed a slower, chunky tempo in pairing up with “another song that wasn’t a hit,” Turnstiles’ “Summer, Highland Falls.” Peak charter and alpha unit mover The Stranger also showed signs of aging in backboning the show (“Vienna,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” two-time Grammy-winner “Just the Way You Are,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” and penultimate encore “Only the Good Die Young”), but fused perfectly with follow-up 52nd Street (“Zanzibar,” “My Life,” “Big Shot”), and especially 1980 three-peat Glass Houses (“Sometimes a Fantasy,” “Don’t Ask Me Why,” and encores “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me” and walk-off “You May Be Right”).

Catalog stuffed, the emcee pitted his copyrights against each other, letting the uproarious arena decide. “The Longest Time” vs. “An Innocent Man,” “Keeping the Faith” or “The Entertainer”? The latter won, and while the title track to his last great album went sorely bypassed by this fan, “The Longest Time” provided one of the concert’s most thrilling moments: Joel’s sole basso profundo note deep in the song’s doo-wop. Otherwise “Sometimes a Fantasy” retained its punk-era snap and “The River of Dreams” reiterated its place as final Joel memorable.

Dream set list for someone who at 12 (cough) borrowed a cassette of The Stranger upon release yet never caught up to all the Eighties cool kids (Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Peter Gabriel, George Michael) until relatively recent, its author’s tenor hasn’t burnished, nor have the sax stylings throughout his oeuvre, ably recreated Friday. His falsetto’s not half bad, either. One could wish for “Stiletto,” “All for Leyna,” and really, a whole other hour of gold and platinum material, but an evening with Billy Joel will last you a lifetime.

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Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, Peter Gabriel, George Michael, Garth Brooks, Elton John, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Gershwin, Bernie Taupin, ZZ Top, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly

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