Still rock and roll to me

Holly and I went to the MCI Verizon Center last night to catch Billy Joel on his latest solo tour -- by my count, his second since he "retired." Being a rock star is like being an emeritus professor, I guess: you aren't on active duty any more, but you still have discretion to offer a course/tour whenever it suits you, and if you're prominent enough you can fill an arena without releasing any new material.

It was a good show -- not the best show I've ever seen, and not even the best Billy Joel show I've ever seen. (His Storm Front Tour takes that title as far as I'm concerned; I hear fans rave about earlier tours but I'm not that old :-) This is an "album cuts tour" for Joel; he is making an effort to play songs that are not just his well-known greatest hits, but also to trot things out of his extensive back catalogue. My night was made when he played "Captain Jack" about mid-way through the show; Holly's was made when as the third song he reached back to the Cold Spring Harbor album and played "Everybody Loves You Now."

You can see the complete set-list here.

It's an interesting dilemma for an artist, especially one with a career as long and varied as Billy Joel's has been: what do you play when you're in front of an audience? On one hand, there are those people who only know you because of your popular hits, songs like "River of Dreams" and "Only the Good Die Young" and "New York State of Mind." On the other hand, someone like Billy Joel also has something of a die-hard fan base, people (myself and my wife included) who would rather hear relatively obscure things like "Tomorrow is Today" or "Summer, Highland Falls" or "Big Man On Mulberry Street." After starting off this tour with a radical departure from his past practices -- in the first show he opened with "Piano Man," which has been his closing song for years and years -- he has settled into a routine of playing some more obscure things up-front and then getting more traditional and pop-hit oriented as the show goes on.

Thus, last night after a very energetic rendition of "Angry Young Man" and a solid take on "My Life," we got "Everybody Loves You Now," "The Entertainer," "New York State of Mind" (not exactly obscure -- I was really hoping for "Summer, Highland Falls" when he said he was going to play something from Turnstiles next -- "The Downeaster Alexa," and "Zanzibar." "Stiletto" (also from 52nd Street) was supposed to be next, but he nixed it and moved on to the popular hits part of the evening. Which lasted for the rest of the show.

I have to admit that I walked out of the show a tad disappointed. At other stops on the tour he has played marvelous little gems like "You're My Home" and "Sleeping With the Television On," but not last night. And although we did get the traditional songs from my favorite Billy Joel album The Nylon Curtain -- "Pressure," "Allentown," and "Goodnight Saigon" with his usual stage show of local vets coming on stage to put their arms around each other in a show of solidarity -- we didn't get "A Room of Our Own" (which I've never heard him do live, and apparently he is sometimes doing this time out), and apparently he's not playing my two favorite songs from that album this time: "She's Right on Time" and "Scandinavian Skies."

I'm not sure how well a show featuring lots of more obscure things would have gone over, though. Most of the paying customers were most likely not die-hard fans, and probably would have been lost among the rarities. [Certainly the drunk folks in front of us who insisted on standing and staggering around -- they called it "dancing" -- for the last half of the show, thus blocking everyone else's view of the stage…that's a special kind of obnoxious…would have been totally lost. Then again, they looked pretty unaware of their surroundings anyway. It is beyond me why anyone pays that kind of money for a concert and then goes, gets plastered, and soils the experience for the fans who come for the music and the performance.] So in that way I suppose that we should be grateful that as many rarities made it on to the program as they did.

I'd still have preferred -- and have paid good money -- for an all-rarities (or almost-all-rarities) show. It's too bad that more successful artists don't do that; after all, they don't need the money from the gigantic crowds.

On a smaller scale, the same dilemma presents itself when an academic attends a conference. Which songs do I pull out? The audience expects something; do I give it to them? Is this the right time to try out relatively obscure or totally new material, or should I play it safe and stick to the established hits -- even at the risk of failing to excite the hard-core fans? And do I close with "Piano Weber Man," as I usually do, or shake things up a bit and close with (say) "And So It Goes" or "Famous Last Words"?

We shall just have to wait and see what transpires. And in the end, that's the fun of live performance: you don't really know what's going to happen until it, well, happens.

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