“I don’t have anything new for you,” Billy Joel admits to his first ever Wembley stadium crowd. “Just the same old shit.”
As a wry opening gambit, it’s candid, disarming and typically Joel. Despite having sold 150m records, becoming the third best-selling solo artist in the US and winning six Grammy awards, Joel has managed to remain both everyman and underdog since his 1973 breakthrough hit, Piano Man. He’s the writer of heartfelt ballads, an unrepentant old rock ’n’ roller, a pop chronicler of low life and the dispossessed who married an 80s supermodel.
Despite having not released an album of new material since 2001, Joel has played a residency at Madison Square Garden since January 2014 – one show a month– and looks immediately at home in his cavernous surroundings as he tears into Prelude/Angry Young Man, with energy and tenacity, standing to hang over the keys of his gently rotating baby grand piano. That’s as far as the special effects go, though good use is made of the eight oblong screens that hang over the stage, often to display images of Joel’s beloved New York. Instead, he relies on old-fashioned crowd participation, with “fielder’s choice” moments, where the audience choose which of two songs they would like to hear.
It’s a gimmick that makes a stadium feel like an intimate club, and airs unlikely gems including the experimental jazz of Zanzibar, the Kurt Weill-influenced Vienna and doo-wop homage The Longest Time. Uniting the disperate styles is Joel’s sublime and surprisingly evergreen voice. It glides through subtle classics like She’s Always a Woman and Just the Way You Are, turning world-weary for New York State of Mind, the years erased with every warm, distinct note. But Joel’s just as good on edgier songs, snarling through My Life and You May Be Right, with Scenes from an Italian Restaurant an impressive tour de force.
However, he spends a fair amount of his two-and-a-half hour set chatting – sometimes in a risible Cockney accent – and enjoying himself. Obviously happy to be back in Britain after an absence of three years, Joel dips into The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and plays Rule Britannia. In-between the affecting Leningrad and Allentown there are impressions of Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger and Elton John, along with gleeful fly-swatting. Joel’s indulgent to his super-tight, eight-strong band, too. Along with guitar and sax solos, his guitarist sings Nessun Dorma and long-standing guitar tech Chainsaw tears about the stage singing AC/DC’s Highway to Hell with Joel on guitar.
But the singer-songwriter never gives up his hard-won spotlight. Free from the piano for Uptown Girl , he twirls his mic stand, singing with playful bravado. He’s breathless following an encore of Only The Good Die Young, but this affords Piano Man its original air of desperation and determination. The arguably taken-for-granted legend proves “the same old shit” is something very special indeed.