He had recently played the 12/12/12 benefit concert in New York City for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and then it was an April 21 gig in Australia.
But Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Piano Man put on a show for the ages. Joel’s 90-minute set touched on nearly all of his classic hits, while packing in a few gems that diehards would only know.
Even for those diamonds in the rough, Joel’s showmanship kept the audience involved throughout, as his personality nearly shined brighter than the spring sun that was burning through the clouds.
From the moment the doors opened at Jazz Fest, Joel’s time slot hung over the entire festival. By 12:30 p.m., the area around the main Acura Stage was packed with blankets and chairs, with flags signaling the marked territory of various tribes ready to wait out the hours until Joel’s 5:15 p.m. start time.
Once a blazer-wearing Joel took his spot behind his ubiquitous piano, the standing room-only area was a huddled blob of humanity hoping to squeeze tightly to their small radius of real estate.
Joel easily calmed the masses from the start, however.
Two songs in, he broke out the classic “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” which had the banners waving and fans holding up their beers triumphantly.
And it is a song like “Miami 2017” that perfectly showcases Joel’s mastery of pushing the tempo when it’s called for, but then throwing everyone for a loop with a passionate lyric or the crash of a drum.
He followed that up with an upbeat version of “My Life,” which elicited loud cheers. While that track sounds incredible on his 1978 album 52nd Street, the way the groove played with Joel’s accents from the piano confirmed that it was a song meant to be played live.
There were a few poignant moments to the Joel show, as well.
The last time Joel performed at Jazz Fest, it was 2008, and those who were there surely remember the monsoon-like conditions that Joel toughed out to finish out his duties.
Under blue skies and temperatures in the mid-80s, the festival crew showed video of that washed-out day on the giant screens flanking the stage while Joel launched into the ragtime standard “Root Beer Rag.”
When he was finished tickling the ivories on that one – masterfully, one must add – he added another joke, noting that he was “starting to look so old, [his] mother was hitting on him.”
The big laugh that garnered was rewarded with heartfelt versions of “New York State of Mind,” “Don’t Ask Me Why,” “The Entertainer” and “Allentown.”
Another highlight for the Crescent City-centric crowd was “Zanzibar,” which features a jazzy beat and heavy work from the trumpet.
And Joel made a point to dedicate “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” to the people affected by the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
From there, Joel featured more of his iconic hits – “Only the Good Die Young,” “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and the closing “You May Be Right.”
Of course, Joel couldn’t let his trip to NOLA end without performing what has become his calling card, and the undulating wave of New Orleanians wouldn’t let him either.
Linking arms, the strangers looking on awe sang along as Joel offered a finale of “Piano Man” that would have brought the roof down had there been one.
Needless to say, Joel still has it.