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If you grew up in the 1970s and '80s, a pair of voices from the Tri-State area spent a good deal of time dominating the radio -- and later, the MTV -- airwaves and establishing reputations for rousing concerts.

New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen and Long Island's Billy Joel are about the same age, and both come from working-class backgrounds. Their experiences form a bond between their music that is impossible to miss, but there also are vast differences.

Joel, who will perform a second concert Thursday night in Memorial Auditorium, has taken a somewhat lower road to pop success than has Springsteen, despite the fact that Joel's music on the surface has a more eclectic sound.

Joel is a natural and engaging performer who galvanized his audience Saturday night the way few musicians ever do -- the sellout, in-the-round crowd cheered every song wildly, and few of the 16,000 or so present failed to sing along with "Piano Man," the tale of barroom piano playing that was Joel's breakthrough hit.

But Springsteen also galvanizes crowds, and a listen to his live album will show the audience singing just as passionately along with "Thunder Road" as Joel's audience did with "Piano Man."

So what's the difference? While Joel's songs lack the substance and originality of Springsteen's, Joel outdoes even Bruce for pure showmanship. Joel is a ball of kinetic energy, as he dances around, performs microphone-stand tricks and engages in acrobatics atop his Steinway.

And where Springsteen would have launched into one of his protracted story-telling sessions, Joel tossed in comic relief -- a barrelhouse piano version of "Jingle Bells," a rap version of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" ("'Twas da night befo' Christmas an' all through da house . . .").

Joel is most entertaining when he performs older, up-tempo hits like "My Life" and "Only the Good Die Young." Those songs are solid, piano-driven rock 'n' roll that don't have much to say but can be fun.

Less successful were versions of "An Innocent Man" and "Uptown Girl," from Joel's "back-to-my-roots" album, "An Innocent Man." The songs might have been enlightening only if you never have heard of the Drifters or the Four Seasons. But a rendition of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" between those songs had the entire crowd jumping. (It wasn't clear if Joel realized the song has been co-opted as a theme for the Buffalo Bills.)

Joel's ballads are pretty, if rather insubstantial. (He dedicated "Honesty" to Milli Vanilli, the European duo who lip-synched its way to success.)

But Joel gets in well over his head when he attempts social relevance. "Allentown" and "The Downeaster Alexa" are catchy and passionate, respectively, but not especially convincing in terms of their blue-collar lyrical essays. And the Vietnam saga "Goodbye Saigon" could be downright offensive, coming as it does from someone who probably hasn't been within a couple thousand miles of a shooting war.

In an ironic twist, many members of the audience held up butane lighters during that song -- wasting petroleum products while American servicemen are in the Middle East bracing for what many fear could be this generation's Vietnam.


Billy Joel
Pop singer-pianist.

Saturday night in Memorial Auditorium.

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