Arts & Culture

Review: Billy Joel at American Airlines Center

Billy Joel
Billy Joel Roman A. Pena and Jamie B. Ford/Special to DFW.com

Billy Joel couldn’t stop staring at himself.

The Jumbotron, up in the rafters of the American Airlines Center, kept catching the singer-songwriter’s eye Thursday night.

On it, larger than life, displayed to every corner of the thoroughly full room, was his weathered, grinning face, appearing in North Texas for his first concert here in more than seven years.

It wasn’t vanity holding his gaze, so much as the bemused reaction to the passage of so much time.

“I look just like my dad,” Joel cracked. “I didn’t want to look anything like my dad.”

That inescapable weight of decades was palpable throughout Joel’s two-hour set, a recurring theme — Joel frequently snuck glances at the enormous screen throughout the evening, often shaking his head in wry resignation — and one that gave the beloved music depth and poignancy.

The very familiar is easily taken for granted, but watching Joel expertly work the room, an eight-piece powerhouse at his back, a deep appreciation for the workmanlike but utterly polished skill on display could be felt.

Noting that 2015 marked, incredibly, his 50th year in the music business — “It’s been a long time since I started this job,” Joel observed. “This is a great job — best job I ever had.” — the 65-year-old superstar, apart from grousing about being older, carried himself like a decade younger.

There were a handful of concessions to age (a TelePrompTer being the most obvious, with a few songs pitched lower than in his youth), but otherwise, Joel is still capable of summoning the Angry Young Man when necessary — how else to explain featuring not one, but two nods to AC/DC?

Whether jabbing at the microphone stand during It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me or opening, bizarrely, with A Matter of Trust, seated not at the piano, but playing an electric guitar — kind of like Yo-Yo Ma decided to kick off a performance with an accordion — Joel embraced the unexpected impulse, itself a shield against the march of time.

At its best, Thursday’s performance was like a visit from an avuncular uncle, one equipped with well-worn jokes and often-repeated stories, or a trusted bartender, one setting up your favorite drinks, one right after the other, as you slug them down and feel the warm glow of satisfaction spread through your body.

The set list unfolded like a parade of Joel’s greatest hits: New York State of Mind; Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song); My Life; Piano Man; River of Dreams and Don’t Ask Me Why had the near-capacity crowd shrieking and dancing.

Mixing in deep cuts like Sometimes a Fantasy, Zanzibar and The Ballad of Billy the Kid (followed by an amusing, post-song dissection of its many factual errors) probably helps Joel avoid going insane from playing nothing but the best-known tunes, while also serving as a reminder of his songwriting prowess.

Just when the momentum seemed to go slack — maybe bringing out your guitar tech, “Chainsaw,” to belt Highway to Hell isn’t the best use of the audience’s time — Joel would launch off into another classic, and you’d get lost all over again.

Hoping against hope, against time and against reality, that just maybe, the night could last just a little bit longer — for him, and for us.

Opener Jamie Cullum proved more than capable of readying the audience with his brisk, inventive 40-minute set. His fondness for recasting well-known tracks in elliptical fashion — Cullum opened with Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary, and concluded with a mash-up of Radiohead’s High and Dry and Amazing Grace — contrasted well with his own original works, such as All at Sea. In shades of Joel’s youth, Cullum was hyper-restless, darting in among the four musicians backing him, and even, at one point, leaping from the top of his piano to the stage.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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