Monday, June 9, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Billy Joel gazed at the thousands in attendance at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night and leered mischievously, as if he’d just been given a paycheck for doing what he loved instead of doing work.
And that was the case, naturally.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said, referring obviously to his vocation as a singer, musician and songwriter. “I’ve had no other job for the past 50 years.”
Joel just turned 65 and referred to his 15-year-old self. Somewhere in that crowd, there was likely a 15-year-old trying to sort out life’s path. Same age as Joel, when he saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and said, “That’s a good job!”
What that teenager learned over the next two hours was how to entertain a crowd in a manner that was at once brilliant, nostalgic, funny and even routinely self-deprecating.
“Look at me up there,” Joel said during a moment after he’d just uncorked “New York State of Mind. “I look like my old man. I keep thinking Cary Grant will show up, but, no, it’s my old man. Hi, Dad!” (Gavin DeGraw served as the opening act and is back in town this weekend with Matt Nathanson at Mandalay Bay.)
He dissects his attempt at country-music commentary, “The Ballad of Billy the Kid,” by unraveling the song’s many inaccuracies. “ ‘He was born in Wheeling, West Virginia.’ No, he was born in New York. ‘East and west of the Rio Grand.’ No, the Rio Grand runs east and west. ‘The judge said string him up for what he did!’ Well, Billy the Kid was shot, not hung … but we don’t really know if he was hung!” Followed by the requisite rim shot.
You understand pacing and seamless shift changes in a performance and how to mix a collection of hits in a creative Cuisinart. “The Entertainer,” Joel’s long-ago (and as he says now, farcically outdated) take on the entertainment industry, was followed by a song never released as a single, “Zanzibar” from “52nd Street.”
You feel the sense of lyrical informality Joel has embraced over the years. “I’ve got the old man’s car,” written at a time when “old man” meant your father. Later, during Joel’s still-soaring “Piano Man,” you feel the rhythm and rhyming of his lyrics over several songs. “I’ve got the old man’s car, they put bread in my jar,” and feel that you could playfully expand your vocabulary by re-introducing those terms into today’s lexicon.
You feel that Joel is fine with turning the stage into something of a playground, making it sound like a carnival befitting that line in “Piano Man,” when he slips in a few bars of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis and “What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones for some Old Vegas chicanery. Later, he dons Elvis-styled shades during “The River of Dreams” for a full-blast account of “Viva Las Vegas.” These were all unscripted moments, needless in a show steeped in nostalgia, but Joel played them anyway, and the crowd loved it.
You know how to play the music the crowd wants to hear, and for Joel that is not so difficult as he has not released an album of original material in 21 years. There is no, “Here is something from the new album,” a move bemoaned by fans longing to step back in time. No, most every hit from Joel’s collection of classics was performed, highlights being the powerhouse, show-opening “Pressure,” the melancholy “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant“ and the rollicking “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”
You know to take care of one of your chief musical instruments, as Joel used a throat spray throughout the performance to fight off the dry desert climate that is a real concern among vocalists performing in Las Vegas. “I saw Ted Nugent use this in a show once,” Joel said. “It didn’t make him sound any better.”
You know how to leave three minutes before the crowd becomes weary. Joel ended with “Only the Good Die Young,” and you felt that his voice — robust all night — was finally waning.
But when the house lights came up, you just shook your head at the very best experience this veteran rocker had to offer. Maybe the next Billy Joel was out there, absorbing this performance and knowing that if you are as great and as driven as that guy, you will spend decades not having to work, ever.