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It's Back to Basics in a Show of Old Favorites


By Jonathan S. Cohn

No lasers, fireworks or fancy synthesizers. Just a bust of Beethoven and a piano--a real piano.

"The problem with a synthesizer is you can't stand on it," a grinning Billy Joel proclaimed from atop his Baldwin grand Wednesday night.

Billy Joel

At the Providence Civil Center

Today and tomorrow, at 7:30 p.m.

Perhaps Beethoven would have cringed at such impetuous behavior, but for Joel--who has been climbing pianos for almost two decades--it was his own way of harkening back to tradition, something he did plenty of during his first of three shows at the Providence Civic Center Wednesday night.

At 41, Joel has lost just a little of the spark that has ignited his constantly sold-out concerts in the past. He doesn't hop into audiences anymore, and he usually leaves his shoes on.

But for a guy who played his first concert when Richard Nixon was president, Joel still puts on an energetic performance. He belted out the rapidfire piano chords of "Angry Young Man" as quickly as he did 15 years ago, and did not one, but two flips off his piano during "Bigshot"--a perennial crowd pleaser.

"And I aint burnt out yet," Joel shouted. "We got a ways to go."

Since his last trip to New England--a set of dates in Worcester this December to open up the current tour--Joel has tightened the set a bit. It includes fewer slow songs, and is less top-heavy with new material.

Not to worry--the "revised" show still boasts plenty of recent hits, including "A Matter of Trust" and "Uptown Girl," as well as "We Didn't Start the Fire"--Joel's number one hit from the triple-platinum Storm Front.

But longtime fans will be happy to know that Joel built Wednesday's show around the old staples from the '70s and early '80s, like "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" and "My Life." (Joel told the crowd he pulled that song "out of mothballs"--he hadn't played it for more than a decade).

"You May Be Right," "Still Rock'n'roll to Me" and "Only the Good Die Young" all made the encores.

Joel is also sporting a new band on this tour: only guitarist David Brown, drummer Liberty DeVito and sax player Mark Rivera remain from his old Long Island gang.

And at times, the seams showed through. There were a few noticeable miscues, and on songs like "Pressure," the keyboards and bass tended to drown out the vocals--something rare in a Joel performance.

But if the new band's sound wasn't quite perfect, their stage presence more than made up for it. Joel and the band improvised often, and indulged in some creative lyric making: "I go to extremes" became "I go for ice cream," and "I got a new wife, got a new life" became "I got a new wife on the cover of Life"--referring, of course, to Joel's wife, supermodel Christie Brinkley.

Especially entertaining was Crystal Talifero, a new edition who almost stole the show herself. In between playing the sax, beating the bongos and filling out Joel's ever-lower voice, she raced around the stage, engaging in more than a few flirtatious exchanges with Mr. Joel himself.

Typically, the show was short on political message, except for a five-second sermon about fishermen before "The Downeaster Alexa" and a peace sign after "Goodnight Saigon." But Joel bantered with the audience frequently, chatting about life as a rock'n'roll star. With the lucky fans in front, he pressed the flesh.

In recent years, Joel has finished his shows with a fast tune--"Bigshot," "Miami 2017" or "Keeping the Faith." But on Wednesday, Joel ended with "Piano Man"--a sentimental favorite among young and old alike.

Which is what the fans--who ranged from five to 50--wanted. Joel let them sing the last chorus a capella, and they warmed to the chance.

Smiling, Joel waved goodbye and gave the audience his traditional farewell: "Don't take any shit from anybody." And as usual, he meant it.

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