Billy Joel hits jackpot opening new stage at Fallsview Casino

Toronto Star
Billy Joel hits jackpot opening new stage at Fallsview Casino
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Saturday, Feb. 25 at the OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino

Never underestimate the power or resiliency of a song.

There was a moment Saturday night during Billy Joel’s christening of the new OLG Stage at Fallsview Casino when the singing-songwriting pianist from New York City donned his harmonica and pulled out his signature tune that was transcendent.

As the 73-year-old sang the opening verse of “Piano Man,” the 1973 song about a lounge pianist and the characters he meets in the setting, the audience suddenly united as one. As the onstage cameramen captured and projected crowd shot after crowd shot onto the big screens, the visual refrain was similar: friends and family members arm-in-arm, swaying side-to-side and singing at the top of their lungs, their telltale smiles reflecting a carefree spell where every weight, no matter how burdensome, was temporarily lifted from their shoulders as they wailed away, nestled in the nostalgic comfort of a piece of relatable Joel escapism that he had composed a tad shy of 50 years ago.

They were so familiar with a song that has stood the test of time that Joel and his eight-piece band silenced their instruments to allow the 5,000 patrons to serenade the serenader before closing off the modern-day waltz with a powerful finish.

Of course, Billy Joel has written plenty of songs since then; many of them hits — and many of them that he paraded in front of the OLG Stage audience for more than two hours, commencing with the unexpected run-through of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that led directly into his 1978 smash “My Life” and another 28 songs that included some surprising covers.

These days, Joel is in semi-retirement, mainly because public demand won’t let him embrace the whole enchilada: he plays once-a-month sellouts at New York’s Madison Square Garden and occasionally forays into minitours in other locales. His Niagara Falls appearance was his first Canadian performance since a pair of dates in 2014, one of them being the arena known as the Air Canada Centre at the time.

With life at a more relaxed pace, Joel might have every excuse to mail it in.

But he doesn’t.

His voice is still in very good stead; his ivory-tickling is still immaculate and phenomenal, as he uses his rooted classical discipline (amply demonstrated in the rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” sung by his guitarist Mike DelGuidice) to fuel his piano runs in songs like “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and the jazz-inspired “Zanzibar” — and although he may not be able to physically recreate some of the madman hijinks he performed as a younger man, the easygoing living room intimacy of the concert ideal for a venue like the OLG Stage allowed him to be more talkative and charming than a bigger arena or stadium crowd permits.

“By the way, you’re allowed to gamble during the show,” he quipped just before jumping into “The Entertainer,” from 1974’s “Streetlife Serenade:” “Just cut me in.”

Or when Joel mentioned that his rotating grand piano was the only special effect of the evening, and a voice from the crowd yelled that the headliner was the “special effect.”

“You need to get out more,” he kidded in response.

Or when he took to centre stage to attempt a Mick Jagger impression before he and the band played a good chunk of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”

“You need hair to perform that song,” joked the mostly-bald Joel, “These days when I comb I’m just scraping barnacles off the top of my head.”

He also offered plenty of stories behind his recording sessions: prior to performing his evergreen ballad “Just the Way You Are,” he mentioned that he initially didn’t want to place it on his 1977 breakthrough album “The Stranger,” but he played it to singer Linda Ronstadt, whom he had a crush on at the time, and she insisted it had to be included.

And when he honoured an impromptu request by a fan to sing “Summer, Highland Falls” from 1976’s “Turnstiles,” — which he dedicated “to all the manic depressives out there” — Joel admitted that he was thinking of our own Gordon Lightfoot when he was writing the song (in terms of inspiration, not subject matter) — and delved impromptu into a healthy verse of “Sundown” before segueing into “New York State of Mind.”

He also mentioned Lightfoot’s influence on “The Downeaster Alexa” after finishing that song.

“Why don’t you guys go see Gordon Lightfoot?” he asked rhetorically.

Sometimes he mixed up songs just for the sake of it: “The River of Dreams” was interrupted by Joel’s long-time percussionist, background singer and saxophonist Crystal Taliefero sandwiching in a soulful “River Deep, Mountain High” before “River” continued; and the final encore of “You May Be Right” found accompanying vocalist DeGuidice detouring into a chorus and verse of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘N Roll.”

Obviously, Joel didn’t have time to perform all his hits, but he did milk the most out of his uptempo crowd-pleasers as the octet behind him, which included his veteran sax player Mark Rivera and noted session drummer Chuck Burgi, offered crackerjack support: “Only The Good Die Young,” “Uptown Girl,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll To me” and “Big Shot” triggered the dancing, clapping and singing genes of an audience that couldn’t resist the good-time vibes of the occasion.

And the fact that Billy Joel was the grand opener of the OLG Stage (yes, there have been some prior performances at the venue, but this was the scissor-cutting event) — even with some prices reportedly set at $4,000 on Ticketmaster and $15,000 via StubHub — was something of a coup for Fallsview Resort, eager to showcase a prime venue with pristine sound and great sightlines (although their assertion that no seat is farther than 150 feet from the stage is a bit questionable).

Joel was the perfect choice, with the $130-million-plus soft-seater offering all the intimacy one would imagine a crowd would want from their rock ‘n’ roll heroes, and offering great anticipation for the parade of superstars that will grace the stage in the coming months (Billy Idol, May 5; John Fogerty, June 30; Steve Miller Band, July 8; Rod Stewart, Sept. 2 and Kenny Loggins, Sept. 8 among them.)

And although the performer may need a teleprompter assist to help him remember a huge and enviable catalogue of amazing songs, Billy Joel is one of those entertainers you hope makes his way back across the border, because he can still deliver a joy-filled show for the ages.

Which is just as well; full retirement doesn’t really suit him anyway.


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