Ok, before we go any further… yep, this is a review of Billy Joel at Wembley Stadium. I know, I know, it’s not the usual CackBlabbath fare, so you may want to skip about 3/4 of the way down where we talk about a bloke called “Chainsaw” and mention AC/DC.
Right, still here ??
A long time ago (1980-ish) one of the three TV channels available at the time showed a concert by some American bloke called Billy Joel. It was probably in black and white, can’t really remember but it was a loooooong time ago. Anyway, sitting in a wee cooncil flat in Edinburgh, I watched the gig and it’s stuck with me ever since. If you want to pick the exact moment I really got into music that was probably it…
Fast forward 35 years and that Billy Joel bloke has done quite well for himself. Catapulted into the big time by some pure 80s cheese he’s stayed there pretty much ever since. There’s been no new album since 2001 but no one seems to mind, certainly not the 50,000 people who packed into Wembley Stadium for Mr. Joel’s only UK appearance this year.
Wembley is an impressive stadium. Some of the nicest stewards (not fair to call them bouncers) we’ve ever met ushered us through the security checks and we headed to our seats (via the bar, £5.50 for less than a pint, ouch). Now these were “Ticketmaster Platinum” seats, although I’d question their definition of platinum.
Maybe it’s Latin for “far away”
Anyhoo, the gig was supposed to start at 8pm, and right on time the floodlights in the stadium go off and a second later a single purple spotlight picks out the baby grand piano in the middle of the stage. Things kick off with Miami 2017 (Seen the lights go out Broadway), a song set 40 years in the future when it was written. The band’s Rock’n’Roll credentials are set out early with Angry Young Man which sees the whole stadium starting to get into the groove.
“I’ve nothing new for you, just the same old shit” but no one minds. The band succeed in making a vast stadium gig feel like an intimate club, with the main man cracking little jokes throughout, playing through Just The Way You Are then turning to the crowd and saying “then we got divorced” to a chorus of laughs from the crowd
Billy Joel has been coming to London for a long time, reminiscing about the first time they played there. “It was the Drury Lane theater, there were about 50 people there.. now we’re in this frickin stadium!!”
“You should have seen me back then, I was something”
The whole night had a marvelously relaxed atmosphere. At various points we’re offered “fielders choice” of the next track, with two options and the loudest cheer winning. The first one isn’t even close, with Just The Way You Are trouncing The Stranger and eliciting the first mega-singalong of the night.
Looking round the capacity crowd in the stadium was an amazing site. I’ve never been the biggest fan of these places for gigs but Wembley had got it spot on and everyone was enjoying it. Well, almost everyone. The old bloke next to me stared fixedly across the arena and barely even glanced at the stage, clearly the poor chap had been dragged along by his missus who was, it has to be said, having the time of her life.
The Entertainer (dedicated to Donald Trump, to a chorus of boos) kept things rolling along at a fair old lick before another ‘fielder’s choice”, prefaced with “neither of these were a hit single, so if you want to go to the loo..” saw Zanzibar getting a welcome (if not uncommon) airing. As well as his own songs all through the night there were various little musical asides. Earlier we’d had a bit of “Your Song” and now we had a piano rendition of Rule Britannia before the tempo was taken back up with My Life.
The whole setlist was tuned to perfection, and the aforementioned little musical asides kept it flowing. Whether it was The Lion Sleeps Tonight or With A Little Help From My Friends they all just seemed to work there and then.
A stadium has never felt quite this intimate. Given that he’s probably best known for the 80s cheese it’s easy to forget just how edgy Billy Joel could be. Alongside the sax solos there are the occasional guitar solo, and the one that ripped through Sometimes A Fantasy (a song considered too risque for 80s radio) was up there with anything we’ve heard.
Right, if you’ve made it this far, here’s the traditional CB fare I promised you. Billy made a rare trip offstage, only to return toting a Fender Stratocaster. Apparently they “have a guy on the road crew who lead a dissolute life, but recently he found the light and god is great”.
So in honour of that, it’s time for a song, “a spiritual song”. Long-time guitar roadie Chainsaw (possibly not his real name) bounces onto the stage and the lighting guy throws in ALL the red for a high octane blast through Highway To Hell.
Yep, that Highway To Hell..
The AC/DC Highway to Hell..
Played by Billy Joel..
Yep, that Billy Joel.
If you want an idea of what the hordes of hell look like, well a Wembley Stadium bathed in red light while the whole place bounces must be just about as close as you can get. While Chainsaw charges about the stage Billy heads down into the pit, strat in hand, and rocks out with the crowd on the barrier.
Yeah, Billy Joel, Highway To Hell, that was a proper “did that just happen” moment.
There can’t be many gigs where you get AC/DC and Puccini in the same set mind you. Anyone with a classical music itch had it scratched when rhythm guitarist Mike DelGuidice got all operatic singy for Nessun Dorma.
Of course there’s one song we’re all waiting for above all the rest. Now I’ve seen crowds singing along before, but I’ve never seen anything quite like 50,000 people belting out Piano Man. Not often the hairs on the back of the neck actually stand up, but by ‘eck they did when that happened.
Two and a bit hours after they came on stage the main set draws to a close, but of course we’re in line for a few encores. The stage lights go back up to reveal Billy Joel has escaped the clutches of his revolving baby grand and grabbed the mic stand for, inevitably, Uptown Girl.
Yeah, I guess that had to happen at some point.
It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me just about summed up the evening for everyone, before Only The Good Die Young brought us toward the end. Now you’d think that a stage manager would be needed to keep everything running on time, but before the last encore Billy checked his watch to see how much time was left before shouting instructions to the band. You May Be Right brought the evening to a triumphant end, even throwing in a last little musical aside in the form of Led Zepplin’s Rock’n’Roll in the middle.
And that was that. None of this “pad the evening out with a support band” nonsense, just 2 hours and 40 minutes of nigh-on perfect rock’n’roll tunes. As we headed out of the stadium and joined the massive throng heading foe Wembley Park tube station the enormity of what we’d just seen was still sinking in.
The tunes, the lights, the atmosphere…
The fly swat.
Gig of the year, nah, more than that. Much more.
Of course there was also the slightly surreal crowd-sourced rendition of YMCA in the queue for the tube….