Concert Review: Billy Joel Takes '80s Turn at Fenway Park

Billy Joel gets help from Mark Rivera, Carl Fischer and Crystal Taliefero at Fenway.

“Feels like I was here just a couple of days ago,” Billy Joel told the sold-out faithful returning to Fenway Park for a concert on a picture-perfect Thursday night. “Hell of a year.”

It’s been just over a year since Joel, 66, last played Fenway. And the Long Island pop icon, who hasn’t released one of his classic albums in years, has been busy on his own terms, scattering shows in his record-breaking Madison Square Garden residency, playing Bonnaroo and, only two weeks ago, getting married again. The pregnant Alexis Roderick, 33, took the stage for a kiss Thursday after a perfunctory “Piano Man,” a song so expected and hallowed that fans didn’t so much erupt at its first notes as hush and whip out camera-phones.

Luckily, everything wasn’t quite so rehashed in Joel’s Fenway reprise, as the singer dropped eight different songs than last summer’s ballpark soiree. They included “Vienna,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” the rarity “All for Leyna” and a stirring “Goodnight Saigon,” with a choir of Air Force officers joining the “We will all go down together” chorus – and Joel shaking everyone’s hands at the end. That song, along with the “Downeaster ‘Alexa’” (about commercial fishermen) and “Allentown,” nodded to his recognition of Americans in tough-job situations.

Alas, Joel got stuck in the ’80s though, though late-innings songs that included “An Innocent Man,” “My Life” (where Joel brushed off critics, saying “If I listened to you, I’d still be washing dishes at Nick’s Luncheonette”) and a Caribbean-tinged “Keeping the Faith.” The main clunker came in a stiff, dinky-sounding “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” when whoever was in charge of impressive big-screen visuals froze images of lyric-matching characters until the singer caught up from a lapsed line. Indeed, a misstep is rare for Joel and his professional crew. His tight eight-piece band, spiced by the veterans Mark Rivera (sax) and Crystal Taliefero (percussion, sax), actually sounded studio-punchy on “Sometimes a Fantasy” and pulled off the backing harmonies to “The Longest Time” like a well-honed a cappella group.

One could still marvel at Joel’s impeccable songwriting flair with “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and even “She’s Always a Woman.” Well, “Uptown Girl,” not so much. But for his age, Joel still knows how to deliver a show, even twirling and tossing his mic stand during “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me.” And you couldn’t argue with a more-fitting final encore than the winking “Only the Good Die Young.”

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