Wednesday, August 31, 2016

CONCERT REVIEW: Billy Joel at Fenway Park, Boston MA August 18, 2016

My ticket stub
This review is coming to you quite a bit after the fact and I'm well aware of it, but this concert was right in the middle of my vacation and I had planned all along to unplug and relax as much as possible during my time away. Now that I've been back home for over a week and have readjusted to the normal everyday routine of life, I'm back in the saddle (desk chair?) and ready to write, so here it is!

Earlier in the week of August 14th, my wife and I took our kids to see the Red Sox play the Arizona Diamondbacks at Fenway Park. We had also invited my uncle and cousin so we met them there to enjoy a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. It was the Sox' final home game before a long road trip and the first time our kids had been to a Major League Baseball game. They loved it and we had a great time, even though it happened to be the hottest afternoon of the week, 95 oF and humid and with the heat index the "real feel" air temp was 105 oF! A few days after the game, Mrs. Chemist and I left the kids with my parents and drove back into Boston. For this occasion, we had booked a hotel room in advance so that we could stay in the city after the concert instead of driving back late at night; it would also be the first time since we starting having our kids almost twelve years ago that we'd ever had an overnight on our own, so we were really looking forward to it. After parking the car and checking into our great hotel (shout out to the Newbury Guest House...we'll definitely be back!), we decided to stroll around and grab some dinner before hopping the T to Kenmore Square. As soon as we got up to street level at Kenmore, it was predictably mobbed with people trying to make their way the two blocks to Fenway Park, as well as people trying to scalp tickets and T-shirts. I was even offered an "intense sideburn discount" for one of the shirts...I guess he liked my 'burns! Once we got inside the park, we made our way to our seats. I had known from buying the tickets back in January that the seats were to the side of the stage and, knowing the funky angles of Fenway Park from all of the baseball games I've seen there, was a bit worried that the view wouldn't be good, but they turned out to be very nice seats. We were up above the field on the wall about halfway between third base and the Green Monster, and at the end of a row so we had a clear view of everything. The concert was set to start at 7:30pm and we were in our seats by 7pm, but it didn't actually start until close to 8:15pm. In the meantime, we ended up speaking to two very nice ladies sitting next to us who had seen Billy in concert over a dozen times. Finally, the lights went out and some classical music was played over the PA system as Billy and his band took to the stage. After sitting down at his piano, it was time to get started!

The stage from our seats

The Green Monster before the show

Dr. and Mrs. Rock and Roll Chemist in our seats waiting for the show to begin

Seeing as we were all in the oldest ballpark in the country, they started the concert off with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" before setting things off with a bang with the rapid-fire piano intro to "Prelude/Angry Young Man." The sound mix was pretty good although, surprisingly for an outdoor concert it was a little shrill and tinny on the ears. Overall a nice mix, but Billy's vocals were a bit too low and his piano a bit too high such that it got lost in the other high frequencies (cymbals, guitars) sometimes. One of the great things about his set lists is that while he has a core set of songs that he plays at every show, he mixes up the rest a LOT, pulling lots of deep album cuts and rarities into the set making each show quite different. After the opener and an excellent "Pressure," they did the first half of "Dirty Water" in honor of being at the Red Sox' home field, although Billy admitted that as a Yankees fan (to which he got some good-natured booing), he didn't know the rest! Before "Big Man on Mulberry Street" he announced that "this wasn't a hit single, so if you want to go to the bathrooms now would be a good time!" A recurring theme throughout the night was his very humorous (and oftentimes self-deprecating) banter...very off-the-cuff and real, and very funny!  Throughout the show, he kept swatting at the bugs attracted to the bright stage lights with a flyswatter, many times in perfect time during songs without missing a beat. During one break between songs, he mentioned how he hasn't "had a record in the charts in 23 years...and here I am playing baseball stadiums at 67!" This drew loud and appreciative cheers and was a nice acknowledgment that his fantastic body of work has stood the test of time and continues to do so.











He did a quick audience vote for either "Summer, Highland Falls" or "Vienna" and while I love both songs, the crowd overwhelmingly voted for "Vienna" which was fine with me as it's one of my favorite songs of his. For the instrumental "Root Beer Rag," which is a showcase for Billy's piano playing, he brought up "a local Boston musician...Bradley Bartlett, the Boston Piano Kid!" Bradley is only 13 years old, but he sat down at a piano that had been set up opposite Billy's and proceeded to play the song along with Billy note for note. The sellout crowd and loud cheers didn't seem to phase him one bit and he had the biggest smile on his face once the song was done and he got a standing ovation...a very cool moment! A pair of New York-centric songs followed and were excellent, although I wonder if anyone else who was there noticed the pockets of cheers after Billy sang the line in "Miami 2017" where they "threw the Yankees in for free!" I grinned to myself at that one. "And So it Goes" was Billy alone at the piano and was just beautiful, while the crowd singing along to "She's Always a Woman" so impressed him that he gave us a big compliment after the song ended. Guitarist Mike Delguidice sang lead on "Sweet Caroline," a Neil Diamond cover that is played near the end of Red Sox games at Fenway Park.  Personally, it's one of the new "traditions" over the last decade that as a longtime Red Sox fan (i.e. one who actually remembers what it was like for many years before 2004) that I loathe, but I duly stood up with the rest of the crowd and half-heartedly made the right motions and hollers at the appropriate times. Mike also sang a short Puccini opera song (in impeccable Italian) as a lead in to one of my favorite songs, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." For the set closer, as soon as Billy put the harmonica around his neck we all knew what was coming, and I think every single person present sang every word to "Piano Man." 

Set List:

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Prelude/Angry Young Man
Pressure
Dirty Water
My Life
Big Man on Mulberry Street 
The Entertainer
Vienna
Root Beer Rag (w/Bradley Bartlett)
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
New York State of Mind
The Downeaster Alexa
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
And So it Goes
Allentown
She's Always a Woman
Sweet Caroline
Sometimes a Fantasy
Don't Ask Me Why
The River of Dreams (w/Heatwave)
Nessun Dorma
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

Encore
 
We Didn't Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Big Shot
You May Be Right (w/Rock and Roll)
Only the Good Die Young


Before the band came back onstage for the encores, my wife turned to me and said she hoped she'd hear one of her two favorite Billy Joel songs, "We Didn't Start the Fire" or "Uptown Girl." Coincidentally, he led off the encore section with those two songs! Neither she nor I had looked at any of his previous set lists online before the show, so to say that was an eerie coincidence would be totally appropriate. He played rhythm guitar for the first song, while for the next couple of songs, Billy sang at the front of the stage and worked the mic stand like a 1960s rock and roll pro. The concert was brought to a close with "Only the Good Die Young"...the band went off stage, the lights came on, and the concert was over to thunderous applause and appreciative hollering. They threw a couple of covers into other songs during the set ("Heatwave" in the middle of "River of Dreams" and Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" in the middle of "You May Be Right") and delivered a powerhouse (and fun!) performance from beginning to end. The horn section was so nice to hear, as many of Billy's songs are very heavy on the horns and most bands these days try to mimic those parts with synthesizers (*cough* Paul McCartney *cough*). The entire group was tight and locked in, and you could really tell they were having a blast playing those songs with each other. Billy spent the vast majority of the show behind his piano, which was on a rotating swivel at the front of the stage so that he could spend portions of the show looking at each side of the crowd, as well as dead center. His voice was clear and strong, the result of him wisely lowering the keys to his songs as he's aged in order to compensate for its deepening.

"And So it Goes"





"Piano Man" complete with harmonica


"We Didn't Start the Fire"

"You May Be Right"




We left the concert absolutely blown away by Billy's energy, musicianship, and humor. It was one of the best concerts I've ever been to and I will definitely go see him again if given the chance. He played for over two hours and the range of material from his entire career that they played made it very hard for me to imagine anyone leaving dissatisfied. One thing I noticed right away both at the concert as well as on the T back to the hotel was the cross-section of ages and backgrounds we saw at the show: men and women of different races, ranging in age from Baby Boomers to teenagers and everything in between, all enjoying the show. I heard kids barely in their 20s on the subway after the show talking about how great it was, and it's nice to see how much of a late-career critical renaissance Billy has gotten after being dismissed by a lot of the more smug critics during his heyday of million-selling albums and chart-topping singles in the 1970s and 80s.  After getting off at our stop, we walked the few blocks to our hotel in the still-muggy night. It took a while for us to relax and decompress from how great the concert was, but after managing to get to sleep, Mrs. Chemist and I woke up early and spent the next day enjoying Boston, just the two of us, before heading back to my parents' house and our kids. It was great to combine a mini-overnight vacation with my wife with the concert, and it was definitely worth waiting eight months after buying tickets to see Billy. He may have stopped writing, recording, and releasing new music but he is still an incredible musician and performer and with that body of work to his credit, he has more than enough to draw on to make every show a worthwhile and fantastic experience. If you haven't seen Billy live, I recommend it...you won't be disappointed!

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