Axl Rose and Billy Joel are perfect for each other, when you think about it.
Not that I ever thought about it. Not till Friday night, when Rose joined Joel onstage at Target Field, belting “Highway to Hell” while the star of the show, in dark suit and tie, happily power-chorded in support like the luckiest dad at Rock Camp. Axl returned during the encore for the head-slappingly obvious (again when you think about it) “Big Shot” – hardly a stretch to imagine Rose contemptuously haranguing some hungover social-climbing loudmouth, even if the sax break's not really his thing.
When Rose was still a young Gun writhing his way to security-hassling, venom-spewing, larynx-shredding Valhalla, Joel was already a Ray-Ban-concealed elder squiring Christie Brinkley to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soirees. But even then a similar raw nerve of insecurity, aggravated by perceived disrespect, throbbed at the center of each man's art, leading both to play against type. Rose flaunted his sensitivity via piano ballads to prove he wasn't just a lowlife scuzz, while Joel indulged a compulsion to rock out, as though condemned his whole life to prove to the schoolyard bullies he wasn't a wuss. And, of course, both stars are notorious for bouts of onstage petulance.
But Joel, now 68, seemed wistful and content Friday night, his onetime orneriness now reserved for the mosquitoes he persistently battled with a canary yellow flyswatter. (“I'm worried about swallowing one of the little bastards.”) He sat at the piano, portly and bald, our obliging host, repeatedly tossing out two possible songs, then playing whichever got the loudest cheer. “I could do a bunch of new songs for you,” joked the guy who's recorded exactly two of them in the past 24 years, before all but sighing with self-deprecation about what he had to offer instead: “Same old shit.”
Joel reminisced about his earliest shows in town, at the Marigold Ballroom (formerly on Nicollet and Grant), a venue more suited, he said, to Lawrence Welk, before the obligatory winter weather quips led into a Minneapolis-acknowledging instrumental jaunt through “Love Is All Around.” In its way, this show was as sepia-toned as any wunnerful Welk showcase. There were bits of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “You May Be Right” veered into Led Zeppelin's “Rock and Roll,” “River of Dreams” flowed into Motown for a bit of “Heat Wave,” Joel even perfectly recreated the Beatles' “A Day in the Life” in its entirety for some reason. From metal to doo-wop to soul, all these songs had in common was that they were old, and Joel wove them into his own with seamless incoherence, like we were hearing a chronologically jumbled lost verse to “We Didn't Start the Fire”: Lawrence Welk, Axl Rose, Sergeant Pepper's, Wimomeh/ Motown, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Mary Tyler Moore.
And yes, he did play that unranked listicle of an earworm (“119 factoids only '60s kids will get inexplicably defensive about”), which, in the age of the algorithm, feels prescient in its remorseless flattening of history into a stream of disconnected news items. With Bernie Goetz now as distant a memory as Georgy Malenkov was when Joel's novelty hit topped the charts, that song summoned up an earlier age, just as the self-conscious doo-wop throwbacks Joel performed, “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl,” were meant to when he released them. Each song Joel played felt like a memento of the 20th century tucked inside a time capsule, and the 20th century seemed like a very long time ago indeed.
The core of Joel's own catalog had once felt firmly rooted in its moment, that era between Watergate and the '84 Olympics when he channelled the frustrations of the average young "white ethnic" American guy with uncanny accuracy and occasional insight, when underneath each indelible tune lurked a cranky dissatisfaction with the promises of post-war affluence and the tricky new rules for romance women's lib established. If the standard '70s singer-songwriter cooed diary entries, Joel lectured – you could add “and another thing” to the beginning of a whole lot of Billy Joel verses and it'd sound right at home.
Some Joel lectures blast and mock, other tease and cajole, but all undercut prudes and phonies with “common sense,” that term we use for faulty assumptions so consistently unquestioned they have the weight of truth. Friday night we got a lecture about how you shouldn't live life so fast (“Vienna”), a lecture about how you should live life faster if it means Billy can fuck you (“Only the Good Die Young”), and, of course, a lecture about how you need to stop lecturing him (“My Life”).
Joel's band was skilled but lumbering, and booming even for a stadium gig, though despite the worrying one-two start of a glacial “Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)” into a plodding “Pressure,” the show eventually got airborne. “My Life” began with a full-band romp through the “Ode to Joy” (is there a word for the kind of chutzpah that's just a little too on the nose?) and a backup singer gave us a little Puccini later in the night. Both pop-classical moments might have seemed pretentious in the singer's younger days, but now he just came across as a guy knows a good tune when he hears one.
Inevitably, there was “Piano Man.” Once upon a time the uncharitable could read a jerky irony into the song's smug core – a slumming artiste pissing away his talent by entertaining a roomful of drunken losers. But Joel has been soundtracking boozy, woozy crowd sway-alongs with that number now for so long that his good faith is unquestionable. As with everything he played, “Piano Man” felt less performed or interpreted than lovingly recreated onstage for the crowd to sing back to him.
Typing each of these song titles now summons melodies to me unbidden. Some I love, some I hate, some I never need to hear again regardless of whether I love or hate them. But they're all so familiar it seems as dumb to ask “Are these great songs?” as it would be to ask the same of “Happy Birthday.” Rankling over the years at middling reviews from supposed snobs like me, Billy Joel has sometimes acted as though his popularity placed him above criticism. But after all these years, his affection for his audience may well have placed him beyond it.
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Love Is All Around (instrumental)
The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh) (Tokens cover)
The Longest Time
Mama Told Me Not to Come (Randy Newman/Three Dog Night cover, instrumental snippet)
A Day in the Life (Beatles cover)
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
New York State of Mind
And So It Goes
Sometimes a Fantasy
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
Ode to Joy (Beethoven cover)/My Life
Highway to Hell (AC/DC cover, with Axl Rose)
We Didn't Start the Fire
River of Dreams/Heat Wave (Martha and the Vandellas cover)
Nessun Dorma (Puccini cover)
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Big Shot (with Axl Rose)
Only the Good Die Young
You May Be Right (with Gavin DeGraw)
Critic's bias: I have been running from Billy Joel my whole life. A superfan as a high school kid in Jersey, I turned on him in my 20s not because he seemed uncool, but because I outgrew his lyrics' high school yearbook aphorisms and because his pushy sourness reminded me of a northeast corridor attitude I shared but hoped to shake. But Friday night, I made my peace with the old guy, and maybe with a part of myself as well.
Random notebook dump: What are we gonna do about Gavin DeGraw? Wearing a black hat and leather jacket like he was auditioning for a Moonlighting reboot, the opener made emphatic hand gestures to prove he really meant every word of his One Tree Hill theme song, and of course he played air guitar when Joel brought him out during “You May Be Right.” In short, he was pretty much the exact guy you didn't want to be sitting next to at a Billy Joel concert.
Overheard in the crowd: Shouted, after a couple guys tried to cut in line outside the gates: “Nice effort. Appreciate the effort. Appreciate the effort. Nice effort. Really.”