Billy Joel Headlines SunTrust Park on 4/28/17

Atlanta Music Guide had the pleasure of covering the legendary Billy Joel at SunTrust Park this weekend. Our own Molly Segers shares her thoughts on what it was like to see the man behind the piano.

Friday, April 28, Billy Joel christened the newly minted SunTrust Park as the venue’s first concert.  The veteran Joel was joined by lifelong fan and opener Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, who regaled the audience with the story of seeing Joel as a nine year old in a baseball stadium making for a multigenerational night of piano rock.

Joel took the stage at 9:00pm opening with “Miami 2017” and seemingly never stopped to take a breath until “You Might Think” faded out 2 ½ hour later. The 30+ song set list included 25 career spanning hits like “For the Longest Time” and fan-favorite album cuts like “All for Leyna”. Sprinkled among his own songs were covers by GA legends such as Ray Charles, James Brown, and former Atlanta resident/Billy Joel tour-mate Elton John. A few times the audience even got to direct the set a bit, as he polled the crowd by applause to choose between two songs; “Vienna” vs “Just the Way You Are” and “Leningrad vs “And So It Goes”.

For several songs in the eclectic set he passed lead vocals to bandmates; multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero on Marth Reeve’s and the Vandellas’,“Heatwave”, Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” and Led Zepplin’s “Rock and Roll” to Mike DelGuidice, and most notably ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” to his longtime guitar tech Chainsaw. The cynical could easily write this off as a chance to rest his voice, which may be the case, but his voice was definitely still there. His only overt vocal concession to time was “Piano Man,” which was sung a step down from the original 1973 arrangement. Ultimately the small bit of vocal rotations added to a sense of fun and spontaneity, a rare feeling for such productions of this size, which are typically hyper-planned by necessity, and frequently to a fault.

McMahon did his part to set the fun tone with his eight song opening set. He introduced himself to the crowd, who might not be familiar with hits like “Cecilia and the Satellite” or past bands Something Corporate or Jack’s Mannequin by telling the audience the reason he is a musician was because he saw Billy Joel play a baseball field in 1994 when he was just 9 years old. Now in a palpable “dream come true” moment he was opening for his hero at his first baseball stadium, and he celebrated every minute of it. In addition to jumping on the piano bench and gleefully running all over the stage, he directed the crowed in what he called a “true rock and roll wave”.

At its core, Joel’s show is really about one man sitting at a piano, albeit the piano does spin sometimes. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the show happening around him rather than him being the show, especially in a venue of 40,000+ people. The thoughtfully edited stage design embellished rather than camouflaged, featuring several keyboard cams for close-ups of Joel’s baseball mitt hands and aerial views of his notes, set list, and strategically placed Braves baseball cap. Though flanked by the requisite side-stage screen, a collection of smaller screens suspended above him and his eight piece backing-band, creating an pop art/collage effect and more immersive experience. This was used most effectively during “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as rapid fire images of the historical events and figures flashed across the screen.

The most notable and heartening element of the entire show is definitely that  he is so clearly enjoying himself on stage, a rare and admirable feat for such a veteran. Instead of simply “phoning it in,” like so many others, he engaged his audience; grinning, cracking jokes, and dancing on his rocking piano stool. It seems like it’s as much fun for him now as it ever was. Why would he be doing it if it weren’t? After-all, with an enviable career and a longtime residency at Madison Square Garden, it isn’t like he needs the gig.

photography by Emily Butler Photography

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