For a sold-out concert, there sure were a lot of empty seats at Time Warner Cable Arena around 8:30 Saturday night, when Billy Joel ambled onstage to kick off his first show here since he was still a fiftysomething.
Over the next 10 minutes, scores of tardy concertgoers – made late by epic, unprecedented delays at security-checkpoints – frantically tried to get situated inside the darkened arena as the singer opened with ’70s hits “Big Shot” and “Movin’ Out.”
But the aggravation of standing in eight-people-wide, football-field-long lines (that at one point didn’t budge an inch for more than 10 minutes) was quickly forgotten once Joel got his Beatles-esque hooks into them.
Last we saw him in Charlotte, Joel shared the stage with Elton John during a concert that was the hottest ticket of 2009; on Saturday, the now-66-year-old star had the stage to himself – not counting the eight members of his exceptional band – and proved he can fill just as many seats, and perhaps more.
Seriously. This was a full house. For the first time I can remember, the arena put fans in both the luxury boxes behind the stage and also sold out the upper-level sections above them.
After Song No. 3 (“Everybody Loves You Now”), Joel noted the unusualness of the setup but quipped, “You’re actually closer than those people back there in Greensboro,” as he gestured toward the far end of the arena.
Two points for geographic awareness, Billy!
In fact, whereas most visiting acts just shout the word “Charlotte!” a half a dozen times and give themselves an A for effort, Joel not only made fans feel like he knew where he was, but also that he cared.
At one point, he serenaded the crowd with the chorus of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.” At another, he sang the opening lines of the title song from a 1964 Bette Davis movie called “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”
Most of the night, he just sat there: black suit, black shirt, black tie, black stool, at a black Steinway that rotated 360 degrees. And under ordinary circumstances, you might consider “just sitting there” an unremarkable performance.
But this is no ordinary guy. (Not that we expected him to be. I mean, Joel is so extraordinary that Madison Square Garden has hired him to play there every month for the past two years.)
This is a guy who, 22 years after his last hit song, has a voice that is still just about as robust on the mic as it was in his prime – and who has fingers that are still just about as nimble on the piano.
Look at a song like “River of Dreams,” with a chorus that requires him to go from his highest register to his lowest in a matter of a few words. Nailed it. Or what about that solo toward the end of “Sometimes a Fantasy,” where he has to hammer the keys like an insane person but still produce a melody that sounds coherent? Boom.
Joel eventually left the safety of his stool to stand centerstage during his encore: to play a red electric guitar during “We Didn’t Start the Fire;” to re-create a few music-video dance moves during “Uptown Girl”; and to twirl his mic stand during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”
The unequivocal highlight of the night, though, was “Piano Man.”
He strapped on the harmonica holder, and the crowd went wild. He tickled the ivories to sound out the famous opening piano bars of the song, and the crowd went wild. He paused. He took several slow, exaggerated breaths, as if to suggest this was going to be a challenge. The crowd went wild. He chuckled.
Then he started blowing.
If you know the song, you knew what was coming next, because it’s what always comes next: Fans started singing along, whether their voices were any good or not.
And for those six minutes, virtually everyone in the very, very, VERY full arena was transported back to that college bar, or that wedding, or that dance, or that party – to those nights when that song came on and nothing else mattered except singing at the top of their lungs.
Backed by more than 18,000 fans, Joel sang: “It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday.” It was the understatement of the year.
Billy Joel’s setlist
He played small snippets of several other songs, but these were the ones that qualify for the list:
1. “Big Shot”
2. “Movin’ Out”
3. “Everybody Loves You Now”
4. “The Stranger”
6. “Room of Our Own”
7. “The Longest Time”
8. “The Entertainer”
10. “New York State of Mind”
11. “My Life”
13. “Sometimes a Fantasy”
14. “Keeping the Faith”
15. “Don’t Ask Me Why”
16. “She’s Always a Woman to Me”
17. “The River of Dreams”
18. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
19. “Piano Man”
20. “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
21. “Uptown Girl”
22. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
23. “You May Be Right”
24. “Only the Good Die Young”
What was with those lines?
This is the full statement, from a Time Warner Cable Arena spokesperson, on the long entrance lines that caused hundreds of concertgoers to miss the beginning of the Billy Joel concert on Saturday night:
“Any time you have a sold out event there is the risk for long lines entering the arena. We actually opened doors earlier than normal tonight – 90 minutes before the show rather than 60 – but the vast majority of attendees arrived within the final 30 minutes prior to the scheduled start time, which led to considerable lines to enter the building. We worked to get people in as quickly as possible while still following our entry security procedures. The safety of our patrons is always our first priority, and we feel confident that they understand that.”