F1 fans were in the mood for a melody, and Billy Joel got them feeling all right
The hits just kept on comin': "Movin' Out." "Allentown." "Don't Ask Me Why." "My Life." "Only the Good Die Young." "Piano Man."
Saturday night at Circuit of the Americas, Billy Joel followed a jam-packed day of practice and qualifying rounds of the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix with an hour and 45 minutes of songs so widely known that most everyone in attendance could sing along.
He didn't even do a few of his best-known tunes — sorry if you love "Just the Way You Are" or "She's Got a Way" or "The Longest Time" — but when you've had as many hits as Joel has across a five-decade career, there just isn't time to play them all.
The capacity crowd at the race track's "Super Stage" seemed plenty pleased with what they did get to hear. Jumbotron cameras occasionally panned across the crowd, revealing concertgoers with big smiles on a balmy October night that followed the celebrated return of F1 to Austin after the pandemic canceled last year's race.
"We don't get to play in Austin that much," Joel said about halfway through the set — and indeed, it had remarkably been more than 30 years since his last concert here, at the Erwin Center in November 1990. Joel had performed in San Antonio four times since then (three of them dual shows with Elton John), but apparently it took the marquee draw of the F1 race concerts to bring him back to the Live Music Capital.
Noting that one of his crew members is from Austin, Joel also sprinkled in a couple of sly Texas musical references along the way. Before "My Life," he played a few bars of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" on his grand piano, which rotated regularly during the show so that those on all sides of the sprawling venue could get a better view of him.
A bigger surprise came in the middle of his 1993 smash "The River of Dreams." Joel handed off lead vocals to guitarist Michael DelGuidice, who delivered an impressively lively rendition of ZZ Top's "Tush."
DelGuidice was one of many stellar musicians who consistently made Joel's songs shine, mostly staying close to the recorded arrangements on a sound system that was dialed in almost perfectly — rarely muddled, and also never so loud as to overtake Joel's vocals, which remain remarkably strong at age 72.
DelGuidice, who played in a Billy Joel cover band on Long Island called Big Shot for years before Joel hired him for his own group in 2013, is the most recent addition to an eight-piece ensemble that includes lead guitarist Tommy Byrnes, bassist Andy Cichon, keyboardist Dave Rosenthal, drummer Chuck Burgi, horn players Mark Rivera and Carl Fischer, and percussionist Crystal Taliefero.
Though the sound quality was a strong point, video presentation on jumbotrons flanking the stage left a lot to be desired. Emphasis seemed to be on an arty presentation, with lots of distorted effects and oddly shaped jigsaw-cut screens instead of simple rectangles. But with much of the crowd in the unusual Super Stage setup watching from quite far away (a good bit farther than upper-deck seats at the Erwin Center), a more straightforward, documentary-style approach likely would have been helpful.
The obvious main-set closer was Joel's signature tune and first hit, 1973's "Piano Man," and the crowd chimed in loudly when he let them sing the final chorus by themselves. For my money, though, the concert's peak was the previous number, the epic "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" off Joel's 1977 breakthrough album "The Stranger." Its masterful story arc and suite-like arrangement revealed Joel's ability to be much more than just a three-minute hit-machine.
He'd played for less than an hour and a half when the main set ended, but he returned quickly for a five-song encore that included chart-topping smashes "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" as well as memorable hits "Uptown Girl," "Big Shot" and "You May Be Right" (the latter sprinkled with a few bars of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," again with DelGuidice on lead vocals). A short fireworks display closed things out, with race fans set to return for the big event on Sunday (followed by a Kool & the Gang concert).
Billy Joel's setlist at COTA in Austin
1. Movin’ Out
3. The Entertainer
6. Don’t Ask Me Why
7. All For Leyna
8. My Life
9. I Go to Extremes
10. Sometimes A Fantasy
11. Only The Good Die Young
12. The River of Dreams / with Tush (ZZ Top cover)
13. Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
14. Piano Man
15. We Didn’t Start the Fire
16. Uptown Girl
17. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
18. Big Shot
19. You May Be Right / with Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)