“There’s a pretty good crowd in Fenway,” Billy Joel sang in our old ballpark during his set-closing standard “Piano Man” on Thursday, winding to the realization, “It’s me they’ve been coming to see, to forget about life for a while.” But a concert that could have simply amounted to a stadium-sized, nostalgia-by-the-numbers jukebox proved more spontaneous to the setting – and of embracing life in that moment.
Two of Joel’s eight bandmates sported Red Sox jerseys and the singer/pianist sprinkled his two-hour-plus set with snippets of “Sweet Caroline” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (as well as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fitting “Summer in the City”). Then, putting aside the Sox/Yankees rivalry, Joel told the sold-out crowd, “Being from New York, we know how you feel after what happened in Boston, and just want to say, our hearts are with you.” And he invited the young area teen Emma Stanganelli out to sing “Boston State of Mind,” his New York-themed hit as it was locally reworked to help raise support for the One Fund. The kid carried it off quite seamlessly, her smile mirrored in the look on Joel’s face.
That wasn’t the only surprise that Joel had up his suited sleeves. Zac Brown came out a night early to his own sold-out Fenway gigs to duet on “You May Be Right,” one of a few superfluous encores (well, maybe “Uptown Girl” jives with “Jersey Boys” craze). But by that point, it was gravy to a wonderful main set. Joel dipped deep into his catalog for the bouncy “Everybody Loves You Now” (from his 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor) as well as “Summer, Highland Falls” and his Western soundtrack homage “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” its crescendos riddled with Chuck Burgi’s drum fills. Similarly, after a shout-out to a Park Plaza eatery, Joel’s band nailed “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” as saxman Mark Rivera graced its majestic shifts, from dusky tenor to ribbon-like soprano and back again.
Seemingly healthy and happy at age 65, Joel sounded better than ever, at home with his hearty, huskier voice, whether chugging through “Allentown” (miming the sound of machinery) or serenading the crowd with “She’s Always a Woman” showing women in the crowd on the huge, scattered stage screens instead of the band. Joel marveled at how he’s “still doing this job” after 20 years without an album — and “a long way from Paul’s Mall,” where he first performed in Boston. And when the bulk of 36,000 fans took over the last verse of “Piano Man,” their voices rang as clear as a jukebox, with personal investment on this comfortable night, which signaled the start of concert season at Fenway Park.