Billy Joel, NEC, Birmingham

NEC, Birmingham

There are some things you'd never expect at a Billy Joel concert: the artist hurling a microphone stand 12ft into the air; a roadie called Chainsaw taking lead vocals on a "religious song" which turns out to be AC/DC's Highway to Hell. However, after years off the road, the Piano Man has obviously decided that the one thing left to conquer is his terminally naff public image.

While many have come for ghastly 1980s hits such as Tell Her About It, Joel virtually ignores them all in favour of early material like Angry Young Man. Back then, he says, he was "always bitching about something", but he still delivers fame-game rants Everybody Loves You Now and New York State of Mind with extraordinary venom. Showcasing the songs with three times more energy than usual presents lyrics about Long Island fishing communities and dagger-laden love songs in a new light. Maybe Joel was documenting Noo Yawk life as effectively as Lou Reed all along.

Between songs, he's hilariously pithy: patting his bald head, beginning to play Rule Britannia only to snort: "Ah, always a cheap trick!"

Perhaps if it hadn't been for the likes of Uptown Girl, Joel would still have been considered a peer of Springsteen. Here, he first sends the song up - adopting the romantic persona "Julio" - then switches to the veiled loathing of Sid Vicious doing My Way. He seems far happier tearing through rockers like You May Be Right and It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me.

As he leaves, he pours water over himself and tells the cheering hordes: "Don't take any shit from anybody." Pop music has rarely been much weirder. At 57, Billy Joel has become a punk.

· At NEC, Birmingham, tonight. Box office: 0870 9094133. Then touring.

Contributor

Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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