In 2022, Billy Joel is an old pro. His chops are second nature, his routines so well-rehearsed they can almost seem spontaneous, his music catalog so extensive that Saturday night’s Detroit concert could have been a four-hour marathon with songs to spare.
And based on the evidence at Comerica Park, where he finally dispatched with one of the most-awaited concert dates delayed by the pandemic, he still gets a real kick out of it all.
So did the multigenerational fans who packed the sold-out ballpark, 37,000 strong, treated to a crowd-pleasing show full of Las Vegas polish and Long Island moxie from the piano-pop maestro.
Taking the stage with his eight-piece band – right at 9 o’clock on a Saturday – Joel headed to his Steinway grand piano for a buoyant “My Life,” launching a set that for 135 minutes had the concrete of downtown Detroit reverberating with one of the most successful bodies of work in American pop music.
He turned out to have a surprise befitting the big-league stadium occasion. The concert was an hour in when Joel abruptly welcomed out Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, and confused murmurs from the crowd soon turned to a roar of recognition. The British vocalist – in town for his band’s own Comerica Park show on Sunday – bounded onto the stage, lighting into “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as Joel and his band backed him with proficient arena-rock sizzle.
Elliott and Def Leppard, along with co-headliner Motley Crue, will wrap up a busy Comerica Park music weekend that started Friday with Chris Stapleton. The stadium amps will rev up again when Elton John arrives next week for his final Detroit performance.
But Saturday was all about Billy Joel, and it was a long time coming. The show, initially set to happen two years ago this weekend, was one of the longest-standing bookings on Detroit’s concert calendar, delayed multiple times as COVID-19 ground on.
Saturday brought a gorgeous summer night downtown, so maybe it was meant to be: On the evening of the original show date – July 10, 2020 – Detroit got slammed with heavy thunderstorms.
Joel thanked fans who’d held onto their tickets during the long wait.
“Who the hell knew this was gonna happen?” he said of the pandemic.
Joel has been fine-tuning his crowd work for half a century now, and there’s an easy, winking familiarity in his approach, a sense he’s engaging his audiences like old friends. There’s plenty of banter and good-natured shtick – like the ubiquitous flyswatter he had close at hand, a routine at his outdoor dates.
He busted the chops of Tigers fans early in the night, saying the team with a 36-48 record is “doing pretty good” to groans and laughs from the crowd.
And he had a little deprecation for himself, lamenting it was “the first time I’m playing in Michigan while I’m in my ’70s.” (Joel turned 73 in May.)
A gravely edge has made its way into Joel’s singing in recent years, and he has lost control in spots (notably Saturday on the high notes of “She’s Always a Woman”). But he brought a familiar pleasing tone to Comerica Park, still reliably calling on his falsetto and the old Ray Charles vocalisms embedded in numbers such as “Just the Way You Are,” “Vienna” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
For his first metro Detroit stop in eight years – and first stadium show here since the ’90s – Joel served up enduring hits while digging a bit deeper into his catalog.
That included several ’80s hits that have received little stage time in recent years: a galloping “I Go to Extremes,” a chirpy “Keeping the Faith,” a tempestuous “An Innocent Man.” Ahead of that last 1983 hit, Joel warned the crowd it contained a high note that was harder than ever to hit. When he got to the chorus, he more or less did it, prompting cheers from the crowd – although because he has dropped the song’s key in concert, the low notes now presented their own challenges.
His excavation of lesser-played stuff also included the barrelhouse Beatlesque romp “A Room of Our Own,” a 1982 album cut he hardly performed live at the time.
It wouldn’t be a Billy Joel show in Detroit these days without some affectionate Motown covers. On Saturday, as on his last visit in 2014, those Motor City chest were Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the latter dropped into Joel’s “River of Dreams” with backing singer Crystal Taliefero on vocals.
At one point, Joel toyed with the opening piano lick of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” before telling the band he was aborting it and moving on to his own “Only the Good Die Young.”
“A lot of great music came out of this town,” Joel told the Detroit crowd. “We all grew up in bands playing those songs. So we’re mighty glad to be here. ”
Later in the show, powerfully voiced band member Mike DelGuidice got his own star turn with “Nessun Dorma,” with Joel backing him at the piano for the famous aria.
Cell phones and lighters were out for “Piano Man,” which closed the regular set before a hot five-song encore that found Joel upfront for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and a mic-twirling “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me. ” He was back to the piano to wrap it all up with the bang-bang of “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right.”
Andrew McMahon, who made his name as a piano pounder on the Southern California emo-punk scene, kicked off the evening with a set drawing from his solo work and Jack’s Mannequin days – “opening for one of my heroes,” as he told the arriving crowd.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.