Billy Joel plays the hits — and AC/DC's 'Highway to Hell' — at only Midwest show of the year in Milwaukee
“I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts,” Billy Joel sang during “The Entertainer” at Miller Park on Friday night.
Boy, did he prove himself wrong.
It’s been 26 years since Joel’s last original studio album, a period of time that’s now longer than his recording career.
But the Brewers ballpark was packed for the 69-year-old Piano Man’s first Milwaukee concert in 11 years and his only Midwest concert of 2019.
So, yeah, the show was kind of a big deal — although Joel was quick to comically undersell the night, saying he and his eight-piece band were "going to play the same old (expletive)."
Again, he wasn't quite true to his word.
The soulful rhythms of "The River of Dreams" — a rendition more organic and engrossing than the over-produced '93 recording — flowed into the breezy charms of the Eagles' "Take It Easy." And the rousing finish on "You May Be Right" ripped into overdrive with a Led Zeppelin "Rock and Roll" chaser.
It would have seemed more out of the blue were it not for the random but welcome covers that slipped into the two-hour show, from a fitting "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" instrumental to a swinging "Sledgehammer," by Peter Gabriel.
And there was some opera, if you could believe it, Giacomo Puccini's immortal aria "Nessun Dorma," with backing vocalist and guitarist Mike DelGuidice gorgeously singing over Joel's elegant piano work, leading into the sprawling "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant."
Even more shocking: a blistering "Highway to Hell," which managed to get Joel out from behind the stool at the piano to play guitar hero, while letting a guy from the road crew named Chainsaw stomp around, unleashing a fiery snarl that could have made Bon Scott blush. By the end, Chainsaw was blasting the stage with a fire extinguisher.
Chainsaw was quite a character, but Joel, too, was happy to supply his own comic relief — with mixed results. He shook his hips and twirled his mic stand like a baton for "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," and there was a cute dig at old tourmate Elton John's "don't have much money" line from "Your Song."
But a sweet "New York State of Mind" — with sublime piano work by Joel and radiant sax work by Mark Rivera — was soured by a flyswatter bit and Joel practically belching out a low note at the end for chuckles.
Largely, though, Joel and the band presented his catalog as memory had preserved them — right down to those terribly dated keyboards on "The Entertainer" and the factory-work sound effects for "Allentown."
"We Didn't Start the Fire" was surprisingly dreadful, with Joel looking physically anguished yelling out the rat-a-tat, name-dropping lyrics — including that shout-out to Liberace.
His voice, though, frequently hit the right, nostalgic notes, evoking the bluster of "Big Shot," the sinful flirtiness of "Only the Good Die Young," the smitten doo-wop charm of "Uptown Girl." Practically every song was sung from behind the piano, which itself was stationed on a rotating stage.
For the tender and empowering "She's Always a Woman," screens showed smiling female fans gently singing along and swaying to the melody. And "Piano Man" was a delight, with Joel comically offering deep exhales before those sweet harmonica notes filled the air, cellphone lights sparkled across the stadium and thousands of voices echoed his immortal words.
Who cares about the charts when you've got songs that will last forever?
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- Early in the night, Joel briefly reminisced about his first Milwaukee concert back in 1976, when he opened for Sha Na Na.
- Among the signs in the crowd was one from a fan thanking Joel, saying his music helped them through chemo and radiation.
- Despite this being a stadium show with 40,000 people, and despite a song in the encore called "We Didn't Start the Fire," Joel's show didn't have any actual fireworks Friday. Instead, the song was accompanied by a slide show that looked like it was made in 1998.
- Someone in Joel's crew actually had the nerve to have a chair with a Cubs logo sitting on the side of the stage Friday. Whatever, it's not like the Cubs won the NL Central Division last year or anything. At least drummer Chuck Burgi smartly sported a Robin Yount Brewers jersey.
- Enough about the show: What about the traffic? After the great Ed Sheeran traffic nightmare of 2018 — where a typically 12-minute ride from downtown to Miller Park took an hour and 40 minutes — traffic appeared to flow pretty smoothly, with backups on I-94 from the Zoo Interchange lasting about 25 minutes at their peak around 7 p.m., and practically no complaints on Twitter.
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THE SET LIST
1. "Big Shot"
3. "The Entertainer"
5. "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" (instrumental)
7. "New York State of Mind"
8. "The Downeaster Alexa"
9. "Sledgehammer" (Peter Gabriel cover)
10. "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)"
11. "Don't Ask Me Why"
13. "She's Always a Woman"
14. "My Life"
15. "Highway to Hell" (AC/DC cover)
16. "Only The Good Die Young"
17. "The River of Dreams"/ The Eagles' "Take It Easy"
18. "Nessun Dorma" (aria composed by Giacomo Puccini)
19. "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant"
20. "Piano Man"
21. "We Didn't Start The Fire"
22. "Uptown Girl"
23. "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me"
24. "You May Be Right"/Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll"
Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on "TAP'd In" with Jordan Lee. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.