Billy Joel made his Twin Cities debut at the old Marigold Ballroom in downtown Minneapolis in 1974. He played the first concert ever at Target Center in 1990. And on Friday he played his first outdoor concert in the Twin Cities at Target Field.
The 68-year-old piano man hasn’t made an album of new rock music since 1993 — but then, the Twins haven’t won a World Series since 1991. Both keep playing anyway.
The baseball-loving Joel, who is performing at six ballparks this summer, came out swinging — a fly swatter. He not only conducted his well-drilled band with the swatter, but he battled bugs throughout the concert. In fact, the bugs became a bit of a preoccupation. He even swung the swatter during songs.
“I’m not worried about getting bit, I’m worried about swallowing the bastards,” Joel announced after interpreting the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
“Get oudda here,” he implored in an exaggerated Brooklyn accent.
The first time Joel became detached from his piano bench came more than an hour into his 2½-hour performance. He needed to spray “Buzz Off” around his work space — and, of course, under his arms like the unrepentant punky ham he is.
Getting the piano man away from his piano was much needed. Because while he sang with occasional gusto, there wasn’t much enthusiasm in his patter about playing the Marigold (where he said Lawrence Welk played) and about Minneapolis’ skyways (which prompted him to do an instrumental version of the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme).
Some of the ennui of his conversation could have been because he kept giving the sell-out crowd of more than 35,000 “fielder’s choices” (his words) between one song or another. Too often the options came down to uninspired picks between, say, “Leningrad” and “And So It Goes.” How many remembered either album track?
Well, at least Joel figured out how to perk up what amounted to the musical equivalent of a baseball old-timers’ game. He brought out an unexpected special guest who had no connection to Joel except that neither artist has had a hit since the 1990s. But Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses joined a guitar-wielding Joel for a rollicking cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
It was quite a sight to see Joel, in his suit and tie, jamming with wild man Rose, in his torn jeans, risqué T-shirt, shades, tattoos and rock-star glory. The crowd went crazy. Truth be told, Rose joined Joel recently onstage at Dodger Stadium in L.A., where the rocker lives, and his band is slated to play Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Joel finally kicked it into a higher gear, roaring through “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the doo-wop styled “River of Dreams” with a taste of Motown’s “Heat Wave” in mid-song.
Then Joel, being the iconoclast that he is, threw a curve ball by having guitarist Mike DelGuidice, who used to play in a Billy Joel tribute band, sing the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma.” Of course, it’s the perfect prelude to Joel’s own mini-opera, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” which was one of the night’s highlights.
Other high points included a harmonica-punctuated singalong “Piano Man,” the spunky “Big Shot” (featuring Rose again) and a heartfelt “New York State of Mind,” on which Joel demonstrated the range left in his voice — nuanced, belting, high notes and low notes. Not bad for an old-timer trying to swing at flies instead of for the fences.