Billy Joel Resumes Monthly Madison Square Garden Residency With Magical Evening of Hits and Fan Favorites

Over the past few months, Broadway theaters have welcomed back live audiences, long-shuttered restaurants have reopened in all five New York boroughs, and eager tourists have repopulated Times Square. But New York didn’t truly feel like its pre-pandemic self until Friday night when the lights dimmed at Madison Square Garden, the theme from The Natural swelled throughout the arena, and Billy Joel stepped onto the stage to resume his monthly residency after Covid forced him to take an unplanned 20-month break.

“Good evening, New York City!” he said early in the night. “We’re back at the Garden. I want to thank you for waiting since March of 2020. Sorry we had to shut everything down, but now we’re back!”

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The show began with the familiar opening notes of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” The sci-fi song about New York City descending into an apocalyptic wasteland has been dragged out at special shows marking everything from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy, but the lyrics have rarely felt this appropriate. When Joel wrote the tune in 1976, he predicted that the Broadway lights would turn out in 2017. He was just three years off.

The set list was largely familiar to anyone who’s seen Joel at MSG since he started playing monthly shows there in January 2014, but the long layoff breathed new life into well-worn tunes like “My Life,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Allentown,” and “Pressure.” Even the non-hits like “All for Leyna,” “Everybody Loves You Now,” and “Sometimes a Fantasy” were greeted with thunderous applause. It felt like seeing old friends after years apart. (Taking in the show, it would have been easy to forget we were still in the middle of a pandemic: Few masks or any other sign of Covid protection were seen aside from the rigorous vaccine check required for entry.)

After “She’s Always a Woman,” Joel paused to address a particularly befuddling lyric in the song. “I’m still trying to figure out what that line means,” he said. “‘She can’t be convicted/She’s earned her degree.’ I don’t think a degree is getting anybody out of jail. What the hell was I talking about? She can’t be convicted? She can’t be expelled. She can’t get detention. She’s earned her degree? But she was always a woman to me!”

On a more serious note, he dedicated “New York State of Mind” to Neil Skow, a New York City fireman who served on 9/11. His helmet rested on Joel’s piano for the entire night. “I had this on the piano when we did the [Concert for New York City] after 9/11,” Joel said. “I thought we should have it here tonight.”

Joel lost 50 pounds during the pandemic, making it seem like he aged in reverse during the downtime, and he also got some unexpected love from Gen Z thanks to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Uptown Girl” callout in her hit “Deja Vu” and TikTok teens turning his 1978 deep cut “Zanzibar” into a dance craze. (That may be hard to believe, but check it out. More than 320,000 different “Zanzibar” videos have popped up during the past few months, and the average age of the participants couldn’t be much higher than 18. The internet is a weird place.)

Some of the happiest people in the arena were members of Billy Joel’s band. They kept receiving paychecks throughout the hiatus, but they were clearly eager to finally have a chance to work for them. Trumpet player Carl Fischer put a little extra pizzaz into his “Zanzibar” solo, saxophonist Mark Rivera nailed his parts during “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” and percussionist Crystal Taliefero, who recently recovered from breast cancer, radiated joy during her spotlight moment in “River of Dreams.”

The encore kicked off with “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the odd sight of 20,000 people yelling out “Starkweather homicide/children of thalidomide” in unison. Joel is recovering from back surgery and moved with a slight limp, but this didn’t stop him from twirling the mic stand over his head during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and hurling it across the stage to a roadie at the end. He then wrapped up the night with powerful renditions of “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right.”

There’s no real precedent in rock history for Joel’s monthly Madison Square Garden residency. It seemed like a fun experiment when he started it nearly eight years ago, but it’s gone on to become a key part of the New York City cultural scene, as important as any Broadway musical or jazz club. It’ll be a sad day when he decides he’s no longer physically able to do it. But judging by this latest show, that day is a long ways off.

Billy Joel Set List

“Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)”
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
“My Life”
“New York State of Mind”
“Everybody Loves You Now”
“Zanzibar”
“Vienna”
“Allentown”
“Pressure”
“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’ “
“The Entertainer”
“She’s Always a Woman”
“Don’t Ask Me Why”
“All for Leyna”
“Sometimes a Fantasy”
“The River of Dreams”
“Only the Good Die Young”
“Nessun dorma” (Giacomo Puccini cover)
“Piano Man”

[Encore Break]

“We Didn’t Start the Fire”
“Uptown Girl”
“It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”
“Big Shot”
“You May Be Right”

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