“That’s about it for special effects,” Billy Joel said after the second song, “Prelude/Angry Young Man”, during which he and his grand piano rotated so as to face the other side of the venue. “The piano goes this way, the piano goes that way. And I don’t have anything new for you. It’s just the same old shit.”
Not many shows at the gargantuan Wembley — a “Frankenstadium” in Joel’s words — dare to employ self-deprecation. High-tech gallimaufry and gee-whizz pyrotechnics are the usual fare. But the Bronx-born singer-songwriter, or “songwriter who sings” as he prefers to call himself, made the space seem like an outsize version of the Los Angeles piano bar where he played as a jobbing musician, which inspired his 1973 breakthrough album Piano Man.
The setlist was as well timed as the wisecracks. Best-loved songs from Joel’s 150m records-selling catalogue ran like a spine through the performance, from an early appearance of “Just the Way You Are”, old-school romantic schmaltz at its most winning, to the encore with 1980s staple “Uptown Girl”. In between came piano-bar routines in which audience cheers decided which back-catalogue tracks would be played, “Zanzibar” for instance winning out over “Big Man on Mulberry Street”.
In other hands, the urge to entertain might have verged on the manic. An anecdote about his 1970s rival Elton John morphed into spot-on vocal mimicry of “the other piano player”. The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” was interpolated into “The River of Dreams”, a mellifluous spiritual, while Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” was smuggled into the old-fashioned rocker “You May Be Right”. A majestic rendition of his signature song “New York State of Mind” ended with the bathetic thwack of a fly swat against the top of the piano (“I don’t want to swallow one of the bastards”).
“The Entertainer”, about the indignity of shilling for applause, came after the Elton impression, a telling juxtaposition: Joel knew exactly how much to play for laughs and how much to play seriously. His backing band was punchy and committed, a lively mix of guitar solos and horn parts. Meanwhile the piano man was in excellent voice, whether delivering melodious doo-wop in “The Longest Time” or sneering put-downs in “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”. “Versatility is a curse,” he once said in an interview, reflecting on the critical sniffiness that accompanied his 1970s rise. Tonight it was a blessing.