Photography: Future Publishing/Getty Images
As I walk down to the MCG, I make up names and stories for the people around me. Harry and Norm, who finally got married recently, had their first kiss to a Billy Joel song in the 70s.
Peter and Kathy are on their first post-lockdown date, finally free from babysitting duties for their grandchildren. Sullen-faced Brendan is 13 and his favorite Billie is Eilish, but his dad swears he’s gonna like it. And me: I heard Billy Joel songs as a kid through my cool uncle, whose record collection taught me everything I know about music. We could all be characters in Billy Joel songs.
It’s Joel’s first visit to these shores since 2008, and his only Australian show under the Victorian Government’s Always Live initiative (his other big-budget international show was the Foo Fighters, which kicked off the proceedings in March in Geelong). For an initiative that aims to reinvigorate the local music scene, that’s a hell of a lot of money to sink into American artists – but the tourism angle is working, with more than 40% of the 71,000 tickets sold to freeway goers .
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Cynicism aside, there is something magical about the sight of a sold-out MCG after the past two years. The silver-haired man next to me – a die-hard Joel fan, knows every word of every song – remarks that the atmosphere is like an AFL Grand Final.
Yet, of course, there is another wave of Covid tearing the country apart, despite what we might desperately wish to believe. But the mood tonight is one of joy, against a cloudless sky with a single star on a balmy night, La Niña finally taking a night’s rest after weeks of eerie weather. Summer, finally.
Joel is, of course, a seasoned showman – he’s the man who has played one show a month at Madison Square Garden since 2014 (that’s 86 monthly shows so far), and promises to maintain that residency as long as demand exist. Tonight’s banter is all scripted but it feels genuine, and so does he.
The 73-year-old jokes about the ‘good and bad news’: that he hasn’t recorded anything new in almost 30 years, so we’re going to hear ‘the same shit you heard last time’. It’s true: Joel is unique in that he basically shot one of the biggest hits of the past three decades. But that’s what people want – and that’s what people get.
There are small tweaks to the set for the occasion – Joel accompanies a backing Waltzing Matilda and a little Santa hat sits on the piano. He’s also taken his family on tour – his two young daughters, aged 7 and 5, come out to watch the huge crowd shyly.
Otherwise, it’s tube after tube for two and a half hours: My Life, The Entertainer, Vienna, She’s Always a Woman, New York State of Mind. They’re timeless classics, and Joel’s voice clearly resonates as the backdrop changes with him: wacky prints for Zanzibar, cartoon-style animations for Scenes from an Italian Restaurant. That joke, again – after singing the incredibly romantic Just the Way You Are, he becomes deadpan, “and then we got divorced”.
The members of Joel’s band have time to shine with impressive solos and noodles. A few vocal solos are also noteworthy – a catchy snippet of Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High by longtime vocalist Crystal Taliefero, and a staple, rhythm guitarist Mike DelGuidice showing off his operatic chops on Puccini’s Nessun dorma (then flipping the script with a Led Zeppelin interlude later – the range).
It’s a lot of fun, and it’s exactly what you’d expect from this kind of blockbuster stadium show. The crowd loves it, although there is clearly a divide between patrons who are willing to get up and boogie, and those who prefer to sit still, thank you very much. Then Joel pulls out a harmonica, and a woman behind me gets up, her hands outstretched like a messiah, looks around her, repeating “that’s it”. And There you go.
An encore includes the incredible We Didn’t Start the Fire and a duet by Uptown Girl with opening act Tina Arena. Night has now fallen, lit by the flickering lights of the telephone.
I can’t help but smile, on my way back to town afterwards, when I think of Piano Man’s line: “It’s a good crowd for a Saturday”, and a moment later: “It’s I they come to see to forget life for a moment.” There is still a lot to fear in the world, but nights like this make it all a little more bearable for a little while.