Billy Joel admitted it up front like a badge of honor. Instead of pumping a dreaded new album (he hasn’t released one in 23 years), the venerable Long Island piano man told the Fenway faithful on Wednesday that he’d play “the same old shit.” But when you have the catalog and chutzpah of Joel, you can still expect a few twists. If he can pull off a monthly Madison Square Garden residency (bringing his total shows at that New York arena to 44 at last count), Joel was certainly up to the task of keeping his fourth consecutive summer at Fenway Park fresh enough.
While poppy hits “My Life” and “Pressure” seemed rote and lifeless to start, Joel and his crack band quickly found their verve. The 68-year-old singer unleashed a not-thinly-veiled jab at President Trump, calling the crowd “Probably the biggest in the history of Fenway Park,” gave a somber shout-out to the people of Texas and delivered the first of four “fielder’s choice” rounds where he judged fans’ applause to pick between two songs that he could play.
Despite that offer of flexibility, the “fielder’s choice” trick ultimately proved both engaging and frustrating. Sure, it was endearing for the crowd to favor deep track “Vienna” over the sappy “Just the Way You Are,” while “Zanzibar” heartily edged out “Big Man on Mulberry Street” as a jazzy standout and “All for Leyna” nicely earned a tossup over “Sleeping with the Television On.” But when fans went for doo-wop tribute “The Longest Time” (if a stellar a cappella changeup) over his orchestral “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” even Joel snorted some disappointment.
At least the set rounded out with the also-multilayered signature “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” before the inevitable “Piano Man,” where Joel threw in some harmonica work and ad-libbed, “It’s a pretty good crowd for a Wednesday.” And Yankees/Sox rivalry aside, “New York State of Mind” was pretty sublime, iced by saxophonist Mark Rivera’s silky tenor solo.
Perhaps the biggest sign of spontaneity in the two-and-a-half show – and full embrace of the jukebox ethos – was Joel’s flirtation with (largely unexpected) covers. The singer and his band served snippets of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (sung by a roadie) and the Eagles’ “Take it Easy” in addition to proven fare like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” guitarist Mike DelGuidice’s glorious vocal take on opera offering “Nessun Dorma” and a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in closer “You May Be Right.” But the best surprise was a full-blown version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the vocals split between Joel (doing his best John Lennon) and DelGuidice before that final crescendo capped by a ringing piano chord. Joel raved about the Sgt. Peppers album and noted that if it wasn’t for the Beatles, he wouldn’t be there.
It was all enough to put up with a more standard if upbeat encore including “Uptown Girl,” “Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” (where Joel twirled his mic stand), “Big Shot” (an extra snarl at least) and “Only the Good Die Young.” As Joel sang near the start of the evening, he is – still– the entertainer.