Live Review: Billy Joel Celebrates 70th At The Garden With Hits, Peter Frampton

Greg Allen
– The Piano Man Celebrates 70
Fans, some decked out in party hats, enjoy Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden performance on May 9, 2019, the musician’s 70th birthday.

Billy Joel
Madison Square Garden
New York, N.Y.
May 9, 2019

Many celebrities spend milestone birthdays far removed from the masses, on private islands or in ritzy penthouses. If fans are lucky, they might receive a sneak peek on social media, a fleeting glimpse into the festivities of their heroes.

For his 70th birthday, Billy Joel flipped the script. In yet another sold-out Madison Square Garden gig – the 64th consecutive show of his monthly residency at the iconic arena – Joel spent his special day with upwards of 18,000 fans, thousands decked out in “Happy Birthday Billy!” party hats distributed by the venue’s staff. This time, it was his famous friends who had to enjoy the party in passing and from afar.

Joel’s set, largely composed of the same material he has regularly performed this decade, was dotted with “FaceTime calls” – prerecorded phone videos, really, but if anyone has creative license, it’s Joel – from some of music’s biggest names. Calls rolled in from Garth Brooks, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Eagles’ Don Henley, who welcomed the “national treasure” to the “septuagenarian club,” reassuring Joel that it “just requires a little more maintenance.”

Even better: A greeting from Paul McCartney, who strummed “Happy Birthday,” interpreted as a quintessentially McCartney-esque ditty, and another from Pink, who sang a snippet of Joel’s own “Just the Way You Are” before, to the Garden crowd’s approval, declaring the performer the “greatest that ever did it.”

Of course, Joel, whose knack for bringing out guests from Bruce Springsteen to Tony Bennett has become well-known, didn’t leave fans empty-handed. “This is such a thrill for me,” he said halfway through his set, after a rousing rendition of working-class anthem “Allentown,” off 1982’s The Nylon Curtain. Hushed anticipation fell over the boisterous crowd as Joel, ever the showman, milked the suspense. He was, he explained, about to be joined by the musician who had released the greatest live album ever.

Joel then called out fellow late ’70s rock powerhouse Peter Frampton, and the two duetted on sublime renditions of “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way,” both hit singles from Frampton’s acclaimed, eight-times platinum-certified 1976 live album Frampton Comes Alive!

But the highlight of Frampton’s guest turn might’ve been the banter between songs, when the rocker turned to a seated, expectant Joel and began to recount the first time the two had met, outside of a downtown New York club, 42 years earlier to the day. The two had somewhere to go. Frampton, fresh off the success of Frampton Comes Alive!, had limo access; Joel did not. Ever the gentleman, Frampton invited Joel along and they got to talking. “What is that thing you do with the chew?” Joel asked Frampton, referring to the guitarist’s signature talk box. After Frampton explained, Joel had another question: “Can I put piano through it?!”

As Frampton retrieved a new talk box and handed it to Joel, he told the crowd, “I’m 42 years late, for his birthday, but it’s his special birthday today. It’s his 70th. Next month, he’ll be using it!”

Frampton would reemerge a dozen songs later to jam on the encore’s final track, the propulsive “You May Be Right,” off 1980’s Glass Houses, which Joel fittingly ended, as he often does, with a snippet of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Rock and Roll.”

Greg Allen
– The Entertainer
Billy Joel performs at Madison Square Garden on May 9, 2019.

That scorching moment was only the final one in an evening packed with them. The closest thing to a deep cut Joel performed was “Keeping the Faith,” off 1983’s An Innocent Man, which provided a punchy chaser to a down-and-dirty cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” “Deep cut” is a relative term: Peaking at No. 18 on the Hot 100, “Keeping the Faith” was merely the fourth-highest-charting An Innocent Man single; while Joel had already performed every other song on Thursday’s setlist multiple times this year, “Keeping the Faith” received its first live treatment since October 2018.

But it’s a testament to Joel’s acumen as both performer – and, yes, entertainer – that he knows to give audiences what they want and delivers the songs so rousingly, show in and show out. (In a new Pollstar interview, Joel discussed another recent Garden gig, where he and his team sequenced a setlist containing only his hits. “We tried it and it was great,” he said. “I didn’t even have to talk that much, just went bang, bang, bang, bang, hit, hit hit. … I think we’re going to kind of stick to that format for a while.”) The Stranger‘s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” remains the most epic rock song about catching up over a meal; Piano Man‘s “Piano Man” still belongs in the set-closing singalong hall of fame.

And Joel – with substantial assistance from his elite backing band – manages to mix up the playbook just enough to keep fans on their toes. He prefaced An Innocent Man‘s “The Longest Time” with a twee rendition of The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and, partway through the song, audibled into a playful version of The Four Seasons’ doo-wop standard “Sherry.” Playful, because as his voice cracked, Joel seemed to revel in his inability to hit the stratospherically high notes.

Family, too, defined the evening. For a show-stopping centerpiece, Joel brought out daughter Alexa Ray Joel, who lent spine-tingling vocals to Turnstiles‘ “New York State of Mind.” Alexa Ray subsequently invited Joel’s 3-year-old daughter Della Rose, a common stage presence at his shows, out to lead a mid-set “Happy Birthday” singalong.

Joel, for a moment, was clearly touched. But the gears were already turning in the ever-sardonic Piano Man’s head, who told the adoring Madison Square Garden crowd, “Well, 71’s gonna be a letdown…”

Not, it should be noted, if he takes the arena’s stage on May 9, 2020.

Big Shot
My Life
The Longest Time
The Downeaster Alexa
The Entertainer
Don’t Ask Me Why
Start Me Up (The Rolling Stones cover)
Keeping the Faith
New York State of Mind
She’s Always a Woman
Show Me the Way (with Peter Frampton)
Baby, I Love Your Way (with Peter Frampton)
Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
I Go to Extremes
Sometimes a Fantasy
Only the Good Die Young
The River of Dreams
Nessun Dorma (Giacomo Puccini cover)
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
Piano Man
We Didn’t Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right (with Peter Frampton)