DETROIT – Billy Joel is an old pro. His chops his are second nature, his routines so well-rehearsed they can almost seem spontaneous, his music catalog so extensive that Saturday night ‘s 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, 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.
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He turned out to have a surprise befitting the big-league stadium occasion. The concert was an hour in when Joel abruptly welcomed 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 with Motley Crue on Sunday – bounded onto the stage, lighting into “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as Joel and his band his backed him with proficient arena-rock sizzle.
The show, initially set for July 10, 2020, was one of the longest-standing bookings on Detroit’s concert calendar, postponed multiple times as COVID-19 ground on.
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.
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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 his.
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, 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.”
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 – 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.
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It wouldn’t be a Joel show in Detroit without some affectionate Motown covers. Those Motor City classics included 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.
He 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 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 piano for the famous aria.
Cellphones 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 microphone-twirling “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” .” He was back to the piano to wrap it all up the bang-bang of “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Billy Joel, Def Leppard Joe Elliott sing ‘Pour Some Sugar’ in Detroit