NEW YORK – Before midnight on New Year’s Eve at Barclays Center, in his first Brooklyn concert since he played in a Long Island garage band, Billy Joel sat at a Steinway grand between two guitarists. He wore a dark suit and tie, sang clearly and evenly, and spoke to the audience by announcing the name of a song, the album it came from, the year it was released. About a third of those songs, going back to his first record from 1971, were not hits, and he hadn’t performed some of them much or at all in recent decades. At least for the first hour – before the concert grew looser and more obvious – he seemed consumed by the task of generating new value, and he was formidable, no joke at all.
Excellent management and catalog maintenance, as well as the undying love between the 1970s generation and its own younger tastes, has given Joel a constant listenership to his current age of 64. This is true even though he has not made a new pop record since “River of Dreams” in 1993: an admirable demurral.
Since then, a lot of his gigs have had special contexts – tandem tours with Elton John, the with-many-friends concert bonanzas to close Shea Stadium, the 12-12-12 concert for Hurricane Sandy relief. His next move is a residency at Madison Square Garden, where he will be considered a franchise and will perform once a month as a fixed New York tourist attraction, beginning Jan. 27, indefinitely.
That takes care of his middle-age core audience. They’ll have to come to him, and in the process, they’ll associate him that much more with New York City, which they already do. (The lyrics of his first three songs at Barclays named all five boroughs, as well as Harlem, Chinatown, the Hudson River and the Palisades. Those two guitarists, as he made a point of mentioning, were from the North Shore and South Shore of Long Island.) It’s brilliant business.
But there are other issues for Joel to consider, if he wants. One is finding an audience of younger listeners; an episode of “Glee” in November, including seven of his songs, addressed that. Another is how to earn respect from snobs, aesthetes, critics and anyone else who likes art to feel unfinished or mysterious or understated. His recent Kennedy Center honor may have helped some. The new regimen he exhibited at Barclays, of deep album cuts and full-retrospective dignity – a preview, perhaps, of what’s to come at Madison Square Garden – might do more.
Joel’s map through English-language pop of the last 60 years connects a list of composers who were or are obsessive connectors themselves: George Gershwin, Paul Simon, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul McCartney, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Elton John. In his work, you’re not hearing one sensibility but always several at once: doo-wop, say, filtered through American musical theater, filtered through jazz, filtered through rock. There’s always indirect power in those songs, tertiary sourcing, hidden juice. But you may have to squeeze hard.
What gives a pop song room for serious reconsideration, 30 or 40 years later? Often it’s a kind of problem or vacancy, an emptiness the listener fills in himself. When Joel spoke between songs Tuesday, he sounded a lot like Lou Reed, who was born seven years later and grew up about 12 miles away from Joel in Nassau County. For once, comparing them feels appropriate.
Reed’s music had that room: a lot of repetition, empty spaces, terseness, intuition, blankness, bluntness, talking as singing. By contrast, Joel’s has extra chords, variation, arrangements within arrangements, long vocal notes, clear narrative, pleasing rhyme devices (the parallel-vowel sandwich of “white-hot/spotlight” in “Big Shot”), improvisation (Tuesday night’s trumpet solo and swing-rhythm interlude in “Zanzibar”) and singer-songwriterly narratives about watching artists or being one: Tuesday’s concert included “The Entertainer,” “Piano Man,” “Where’s the Orchestra,” “Everybody Loves You Now.”
His work has been to finishing school, and his hits, particularly from the ’80s onward, can be difficult to get inside and reconsider. They represent more than a drive to please; they represent a drive to squash all possible complaint. They’re full up and hardened by the setting agents of sentimentality and professionalism.
But some of the non-hits – “I’ve Loved These Days,” “Everybody Loves You Now,” and “Blonde Over Blue” – felt different: interestingly problematic, unguardedly anxious diaries of ambition and competition. Even with a slick band, they counteracted the sweetness and glibness of the hits. They made the concert memorable. There’s got to be more in this direction: failed songs, sketches, experimental cover versions. Maybe that’s the way forward. He’s in an interesting position to find out.