If it’s summer in Chicago, you can count on Billy Joel playing Wrigley Field. The Piano Man marked his sixth (and fourth consecutive) appearance at the ballpark on Friday night, giving new meaning to the “Friendly Confines,” where swarms of expressive fans danced to the quick steps of rhythmic fireball “Pressure,” swayed to the barbershop homage “The Longest Time” and cheered at every nod to our city, of which there were many.
Though Joel is a proud — very proud — New Yorker, filling the set with familiar tributes to Broadway, the fishermen on Long Island, and of course Uptown Girls, he did well not to neglect his now second home turf. Some of the night’s surprises included a cover of rock band Chicago’s hit “25 or 6 to 4” and a well-received rendition of the Steve Goodman classic “Go Cubs Go.”
He also had one critique for Chicago. “By now I know you’ve got a bug problem,” he chided, brandishing a neon yellow fly swatter in between songs when not dousing himself with bug spray like it was cheap cologne. “I just don’t want to swallow one of them.”
But choke he did not. The 68-year-old, who has been active in music circles for an incredible 50 years, sounded sprite (other than messing around with vocal gymnastics on “We Didn’t Start the Fire”), with nimble fingers that proves why he still deserves his definitive nickname. Though Joel’s strength has always been who he has surrounded himself with — even now, his seven-piece, hired-gun ensemble sometimes eclipsed the spotlight that was often placed on the front man.
Among them was jackie-of-all-trades Crystal Taliefero (from Gary, Ind.) who wowed with a dynamic offering of backing vocals, saxophone, harmonica and throbbing percussion; drummer Chuck Burgi (wearing his own custom Cubs jersey); and guitarist Mike DelGuidice, who came out of left-field with a pitch-perfect solo performance of the operatic aria “Nessun Dorma.” Keyboardist Dave Rosenthal, trumpet player Carl Fischer, saxophonist Mark Rivera and bassist Andy Cichon were also exemplary, turning the show at many times into a mini orchestral event.
Though Joel wryly apologized for not “having anything new to play,” no one would have wanted it anyway. He wisely stuck to hits from his heyday (1973 to 1986) with showstoppers like “Zanzibar” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” laying out his uncanny and not often duplicated ability to write pop melodies with fuller, more complex arrangements that celebrate international influences. If Joel’s lyrics are inspired by New York City’s urban landscape (the piano clubs, East Village jazz houses and theatrical musicals), his compositions are inspired by its cultural melting pot.
At his age, you could forgive Joel for playing a carbon-copy set list every night, but that would be too easy. Instead, he opted to offer a few “fielder’s choice” moments, allowing fans to choose their own adventure for the night. And wisely they did, opting for “Zanzibar” over “Big Man on Mulberry Street” and “Vienna” over “Just the Way You Are.” Though there were some sleepers, like the working man’s “Allentown” and “The Downeaster Alexa,” which sounded like an Irish drinking song, Joel picked up the pieces with “New York State of Mind” and a standing ovation-worthy cover of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which is an admitted early influence of his.
“I didn’t write that one but I wish I did,” he offered. Later, he included an interlude of “A Hard Day’s Night” during “The River of Dreams,” harkening back to Sir Paul McCartney playing Wrigley Field not too many years ago himself.
Though the landscape in and around the ballpark has become incredibly different in 2017, there’s still no denying it’s a an incredibly special place to see a concert. No doubt many in attendance Friday night were already looking forward to seeing Joel again next year.
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
Go Cubs Go [cover of Steve Goodman]
The Lion Sleeps Tonight [cover of Solomon Linda]
The Longest Time
Your Song [cover of Elton John]
A Day in the Life [cover of The Beatles]
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
The Downeaster Alexa
New York State of Mind
25 or 6 to 4 [cover of Chicago]
Sometimes A Fantasy
She’s Always A Woman
Don’t Ask Me Why
The River of Dreams / A Hard Day’s Night [cover of The Beatles]
Nessun Dorma [cover of Giacomo Puccini, sung by Mike DelGuidice]
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
We Didn’t Start the Fire
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
Only the Good Die Young
You May Be Right