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Monday, July 7, 2014

Concert Review: Billy Joel Live at Fenway Park June 26, 2014 by Mike Webb

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Billy Joel with special guest Gavin DeGraw
Fenway Park
Boston, MA
June 26,2014

Many years ago, my dearly departed grandmother, who never saw a penny she couldn't pinch, asked me why I would spend money on a concert ticket when I could stay at home and listen to the recordings for free. I was never able to answer her, partially because she wasn't the sort of grandmother who invited responses, and partially because it really is a logical trap, especially when it comes to William Martin Joel, whose albums I have listened to for almost as long as he has been recording them. I have no shortage of Billy Joel albums, bootlegs, alternate takes, and live versions to listen to. Why was I sitting on an uncomfortable seat in an overpriced, crowded venue to hear music I've heard dozens of times before? (Not to mention to hear it poorly, since open air baseball venues, especially 102 year old Fenway, are not designed for audio and have angles and walls that serve to soak up and distort concert sound.) 

After a muddy sounding, but enthusiastic set from someone named Gavin DeGraw, (I have never seen Billy with an opening act, but given that the man is approaching 70, it is fair to ask someone to share the load.) Joel began loudly, but with equally poor fidelity, with 1986's rocker "A Matter of Trust" and a selection of common songs from his recent sets, including "Summer, Highland Falls", "Pressure", and "Zanzibar". The reception from the crowd seemed somewhat uncertain, cell phones popping out and conversations continuing, until he played a snippet of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," a song which has become a Red Sox fan favorite, and a rewritten "New York State of Mind" with Boston place names inserted, a version written to raise funds for Boston's One Fund, featuring 13 year old Emma Stanganelli on vocals, which proved predictably popular.  

The middle section of the show picked up, with slower songs like "The Ballad of Billy The Kid", "Downeaster Alexa", and "She's Always A Woman" alternating with harder stuff like "Movin' Out," "Allentown", and "My Life". Joel dipped into the back catalog again for "Don't Ask Me Why" and "Sometimes A Fantasy", but brought the crowd right back with "River Of Dreams", filling in the middle section, a pause where he has been inserting covers of classic rock songs, with the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In The City". Perhaps to avoid civil strife, Joel closed with majestic versions of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," featuring especially fine soloing from saxophonist Mark Rivera, and the iconic "Piano Man". 

A fine show in a historic venue, but the house lights did not come back on, and Joel was back for encores, another new experience for me at Joel's shows. He opened with a hard, taut "Uptown Girl, singing intently to the front row, then tearing through his first number one hit, "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," as well as an uproarious "Big Shot". The crowd, incredibly loud during "Piano Man", seemed to get louder with each successive guitar riff. "You May Be Right" followed with country star Zac Brown singing along, and then a pounding, sweaty "Only The Good Die Young", finishing with the band gathered together on stage, playing hard and grinning, and the crowd singing every breathless, hoarse word.

Walking into the cool Boston night, I finally realized why I love concerts, why I drove hundreds of miles and spent money on food and gas and hotels to see my favorite artist yet again. In 2014, we never have to listen to music we don't like, hear an opinion we don't agree with, or read anything that questions our assumptions or biases. We are islands in the stream, interacting, but only on our own terms, and only with those we wish to let into our circle. Concerts break down that wall. For a few stolen moments, I sang along with 30000 close friends, having an experience that a million Instagrams could never capture. Decades too late, I finally have the answer to my grandmother's question: I go to concerts because, in an isolating age, Joel's music, and fellow lovers of it, make me feel less alone. 

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