Billy Joel clearly knew where he was Friday night at a full-to-the-rafters Smoothie King Center. During his two hours and 20 minutes onstage, he and his robust band covered just about every song ever written that mentions New Orleans or a geographical feature of south Louisiana, or is associated with one of the city’s famous artists.
That list included the Dixie Cups' “Iko Iko,” Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Born on the Bayou” and “Proud Mary,” Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World,” the Animals' “House of the Rising Sun,” a bit of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the Rolling Stones' “Brown Sugar” and LaBelle's “Lady Marmalade,” which both name-checks New Orleans and was produced by local legend Allen Toussaint.
And that's not counting the spirited charge through AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" led by a gravel-voiced gentleman nicknamed Chainsaw, a.k.a. the band's guitar tech.
When they weren't being the world's best-paid bar band, Joel and company also squeezed in some Billy Joel songs. And without fail, they sounded terrific.
Joel was last in town for a well-received set at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Local demand for his services and songs has not diminished since then. Because he uses a stage that is open on all sides, tickets could be sold around the Smoothie King Center's entire circumference. The 16,000-plus in attendance represented one of the largest concert crowds in the venue's history, a fact manifested in a traffic jam beforehand and epic lines at security checkpoints.
Perhaps to allow more time for folks to trickle inside, Joel arrived onstage 27 minutes late. Without a word, he went to work at a grand piano with “My Life,” before proceeding directly into “Iko Iko.”
His set lists, which change for every show, typically include at least a couple of complete cover songs, plus additional snippets sprinkled throughout. New Orleans got more than most.
At least some fans likely would have swapped out one or two covers for another Joel classic or obscurity. Instead of, say, an unnecessary “Brown Sugar,” he might have done “Just the Way You Are,” even though, when given the choice, the audience rejected it in favor of the lesser known but more interesting “Vienna.”
But it’s tough to argue with such a generous serving of 20 of his own songs, plus a succession of shout-outs to a city and a music culture that he so clearly respects and enjoys.
It’s unlikely that audiences anywhere else in the world will get to hear "When the Saints Go Marching In" inserted seamlessly into a precision "River of Dreams." Or see Joel serve as a backing musician while trumpeter Carl Fischer takes the lead on a brassy, majestic “What a Wonderful World.”
If you go see Billy Joel at the Smoothie King Center on Friday, notice the guy in the band w…
Joel was more than happy to let other musicians share the spotlight. Vocalist Crystal Taliefero wailed “Proud Mary” and “Lady Marmalade,” in addition to contributing saxophone and percussion. Mark Rivera sat on a stool near Joel’s piano to caress the tenor sax passages of a lovely “New York State of Mind.” Mike DelGuidice, who leads a Long Island-based Billy Joel tribute band when he’s not on the road with the real thing, delivered a show-stopping “Nessun dorma” as an Italian opera segue into “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”
In his younger days, Joel stalked stages in jeans and often sported leather jackets. Now 67, his head shaved and his goatee white, he was sensibly attired in a black suit and tie. He spent much of the first half of the show at the piano, sipping from a coffee mug between glances at a teleprompter.
He loosened up as the night progressed. His Elton John impression during a brief sample of “Your Song” was good fun. After warming up with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” Joel and the others nailed the rich harmonies of “The Longest Time,” a concert highlight. Afterward, he cracked his first big smile.
For 30 years, Joel churned out perfectly crafted, melodically unassailable singles that sounded great on the radio. They still do onstage. His well-preserved voice navigated the ups and downs as his musicians managed to be faithful to the cherished arrangements while inserting enough flourishes to make them feel alive.
Tommy Byrnes’ guitar snarled with extra bite during “Sometimes a Fantasy.” The bounce in “Keeping the Faith” was as spry as ever. “She’s Always a Woman” retained all of its nuance.
To open the encores, he stood at a microphone for “Uptown Girl,” then popped his suit coat’s collar and twirled the microphone stand for “It’s Still Rock ’n’ Roll to Me.” He finished with a hit parade of “Big Shot,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “You May Be Right.”
Earlier, Joel referenced a line from “The Entertainer” as a commentary on his career. “I haven’t been on the charts since 1993,” he said. “I was on the classical chart, but nobody cares about that.”
Nearly a quarter century after his last album of new pop songs, fans still turn out in droves to hear him play his old hits — and, especially in New Orleans, a whole lot more.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter @keithspera.