January 19, 2012

Stories From a Storied Past: An Evening With Billy Joel

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To the 1,300 who joined Billy Joel for “an evening of questions and answers … and a little music,” President David Skorton has probably never seemed cooler.

A surprise duet between the president on jazz flute and the Piano Man on his Steinway grand made Joel’s sold-out Dec. 2 show profoundly personal to the capacity audience of Bailey Hall.

Joel jammed with Skorton to “She’s Always a Woman” and played about ten other original songs, from a whiny refrain of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to a mellow and bluesy “Vienna,” weaving song and story into an unconventional — and unforgettable — show.

Taking the stage in a baseball cap, a Cornell sweatshirt and blue jeans, Joel set an informal tone to a night that played out more like a conversation with a remarkable relative at a Holiday party than a performance from one of the musical idols of our generation. He fielded some 20 questions from the audience and managed to squeeze key chapters of his life’s story — and his songbook — into the answers.

The anecdotes behind Joel’s lyrics cast some classic favorites in a new light.

As it turns out, the “Piano Man” only played at a piano bar for six months of Joel’s career, and the free drinks seem to have been the most memorable part of that gig. Joel supported his music habit by playing Bar Mitzvahs, Sweet 16s and private parties in Long Island and New York City. He also pumped gas, installed landscaping, fished on an oyster boat in Long Island Sound, stamped typewriter ribbons in an inking factory and wrote — pause for air quotes — “rock criticism” for Changes Magazine. Joel’s respect and sympathy for commercial fishermen added a new dimension to the lyrics of “Downeaster Alexa,” and his mocking disdain for music criticism bolstered the meaning of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

Joel played all three of those songs and several more of his own pieces, as well as some tributes to the masters — from Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and even Gilbert and Sullivan. Hearing Billy Joel sing like Ray Charles at your alma mater has got to be on a Cornellian Bucket List somewhere.

Joel treated Bailey like his living room and comfortably established a strong rapport with the audience. He waxed poetic about the language of music, called Justin Beiber a “good musician,” and joked (or maybe told the truth) that he mostly wrote songs to woo women. By the end of the show, one member of the audience asked him to her sorority’s formal.

Most impressively, Joel was careful not to take his music or himself too seriously. He called “We Didn’t Start the Fire” the “worst melody anyone’s ever written.” He leaped and twirled across the stage while mocking Movin’ Out, a Broadway production set to his music, then admitted he got “choked up” when he saw it performed for the first time.

As casual as his dialogue was, Joel’s melodies were all the more profound. The wide-eyed, “Oh-my-God-that’s-Billy-Joel!” anticipation faded into the conversation but reverberated through the auditorium when he sat at one of the two pianos on stage and started to play. Joel’s voice was like butter on the soul. Warmth spread across the Bailey mezzanine as the audience swayed to “Piano Man” and tapped their feet to “Only the Good Die Young.” Joel’s live songs were raw and unfiltered, glazing over studio-perfect progressions into something unique, pure and comforting. The records sound almost empty now, after hearing them played firsthand.

Joel closed his third performance at Cornell — he played Barton Hall in 1974 and Bailey in 1996 — with a sentimental rendition of “New York State of Mind.” The standing ovation that followed capped off the easiest and most pleasant two hours that passed on campus this December. When the lights came on in Bailey, few were ready to leave.

Music criticism might be deserving of air quotes, and it might not matter what they say in the papers, but Billy Joel gets a glowing review from this Sun reporter.

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch