While going on a shakedown cruise, Billy Joel and his mates enjoyed pretty smooth sailing Tuesday night in Portland.
The concert, before a sellout crowd of 8,000 at the Cumberland County Civic Center, was the only New England stop for Joel during the current leg of his ’98 touring season. So he and his eight bandmates used the evening to try out different material, performing 23 songs during the two-hour, 15-minute concert.
“We’re trying to decide what’s going to live and what’s going to die,” the burly, bearded singer told the audience. “Not to put any pressure on you, but if you react like a song sucks, it’s not gonna last long.”
There wasn’t much risk of that, as Joel, garbed in a black suit, and company received numerous standing ovations from the enthusiastic, all-ages audience.
Joel also told the crowd that the concert, his first visit to Portland in five years, was the first show for him this year.
“So I’m sure there’ll be a train wreck every now and then,” he added.
The obvious screw-ups were few. Joel did mess up the lyrics on a couple of songs, including the challenging “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” But Joel was also trying out songs which he had never played in concert before, including “All About Soul” and “This is the Time.” That would explain the presence of a small teleprompter flashing lyrics near Joel’s baby grand.
A bigger problem was visibility. The piano not being a portable instrument, Joel by necessity faced one direction a majority of the time. The main piano rested on a revolving platform, which Joel worked with a foot pedal, but which direction he was pointing was naturally a low priority for the singer. The task would have been better handled by a member of the stage crew instead.
But these are quibbles on what was an exciting, energizing retrospective on Joel’s 25-year career, with songs ranging from 1974’s “Piano Man” to 1993’s “River of Dreams.” He didn’t miss many of his hits, but he also included such rare gems as “Big Man on Mulberry Street.”
The evening started off 20 minutes late, but Joel made up for lost time with a spirited version of “The Stranger.” He then received a standing ovation after “The Legend of Billy the Kid,” and ingratiated himself to the audience by saying, “I like the weather here. It’s brisk, it’s invigorating, it’s good to work in.”
While strapping on an accordion for “Downeaster Alexa,” he remarked, “We weren’t going to play this one, but this is as close as we’re going to get to Down East.”
Besides the baby grand that was front and center on the stage, Joel employed two keyboards that would spin on either side of the catwalk behind the stage, and he also conjured up a second baby grand from beneath the center of the catwalk for “I Go To Extremes.” In addition, he used a guitar, largely as a prop, during “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Joel was ably supported by his band, especially Mark Rivera, who played saxophone, guitar and percussion, and Crystal Taliefero, who played percussion, guitar and sax and provided backup vocals.
Two of the evening’s highlights featured Joel and his backup vocalists. Joel, Rivera, Taliefero, Michael Mellett and Becca Bramlet hooked up for a playful doowop version of “The Longest Time.” Joel and Bramlet teamed up for a sensuous rendition of “Until the Night.”
Joel left the stage the first time after “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” then returned for an encore of “You May Be Right” and his signature “Piano Man,” which turned into a sing-along with the crowd.
Perhaps the night can best be summed up by the final chorus of “Piano Man,” which the audience sang a cappella to Joel:
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man;
sing us a song tonight;
well, we’re all in the mood for a melody;
and you’ve got us feeling all right.