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Keyed up Despite decades of runaway success, Billy Joel isn't satisfied to rest on his reputation as a skilled songwriter and electrifying entertainer

"I really think I'm a mediocre singer. I can't stand the sound of my voice."

You'd think an artist who has retained a close relationship with the upper echelons of the charts for 30 years would, by this point, be quite comfortable in his own skin.

Few artists have balanced artistic and commercial success with as much skill as Billy Joel. His "Greatest Hits Volumes I & II" alone is 20-times platinum, and every studio album he's released save one has sold more than 1 million copies. That makes him one of the most popular recording artists in history.

And yet Joel remains his own worst critic, a man who has likened the piano through which he's communicated with his muse for more than three decades to "a beast with 88 teeth," and has compared the songwriting process which has yielded him dozens of hit singles and a mantle full of Grammys to "a particularly painful birthing experience."

Looking back on his body of recorded work, it's easy to lump Joel in with his hero, Paul McCartney, as that rarest of artist able to remain both artistically credible and commercially successful, despite the reigning popular tastes of the day.

Joel's having none of it.

"I just don't consider what I do to be all that special, certainly not on the level of the Beatles," he says. "Which is not to say I'm ungrateful to the people who like what it is I do. But really, it has often seemed to me that I look good only because so much around me looks bad!"

Joel is speaking by phone from his home a few days before arriving in Buffalo to kick off the second leg of his current tour. He plays at 8 tonight in HSBC Arena.

This inability to give himself a break has been both curse and blessing to Joel, ever since he emerged from the (briefly) burgeoning Long Island rock scene of the late '60s. The perpetual ennui has prevented Joel from resting on his laurels, musically speaking. It has also painted him into an existential corner from time to time, encouraging him to question both impulses and proven abilities, to the point where today, he hasn't released a full album of original rock-based material in 14 years.

During that time, Joel turned his attentions back to the musical avenue he favored before becoming involved with rock 'n' roll as a late teen -- classical music.

"Fantasies and Delusions" marked Joel's first full-blown foray into the classical world, and consisted of stirring pieces redolent of the Romantic era, composed by Joel, but performed by virtuoso pianist Richard Joo. The record, released in 2001, fared pretty well, both commercially and critically. Since then, Joel has concentrated solely on touring, for a few years, as part of a package with Elton John, and more recently, on his own.

>Song meant for his wife

Recently, Joel released a single, via iTunes. "All of my Life" is an understated romantic ballad, one redolent of the spirit Frank Sinatra tuned into on albums like "In the Wee Small Hours." Joel sings the song beautifully, intoning with inflections that suggest deep, easy familiarity with the phrasing of both Tony Bennett and Chet Baker.

Anyone hoping that "All of my Life" is the first single from a forthcoming "pop" album from Joel is bound for disappointment. The song is a one-off. Joel still has no plans to write and record a new album.

"I wrote the song for my wife on our one-year anniversary," Joel says. "Again, no one was meant to hear the thing except for her. I did a recording of it just to have a record of it, so it would be there forever. And then the label got enthused about putting it out. So I got together with (producer) Phil Ramone, and we really had fun doing it in a full-blown way. But again, it was for her. It certainly isn't part of some sort of campaign, you know? We haven't even played the song live. I have no idea if it will even reach the audience we play our concerts to."

So much for that idea.

Joel fans will have to content themselves with the man's still-inspired concerts, which celebrate a body of work well beyond the capabilities of the majority of Joel's peers, and are marked by an attention to craft, a musicianship and a lyricism that is probably largely unfamiliar to listeners in their teens and 20s today. In fact, the fully-actualized classical piano pieces on "Fantasies and Delusions" are not unlike the melodies buoying Joel's rock songs, which are notable for Classical-based melodies, often intricate harmonies, and immaculately honed arrangements.

Not surprisingly, Joel has trouble seeing the forest for the trees. He's just not one to look back -- not in anger, nor through the soggy glow of nostalgia.

"I've really not been able to sit back and look at my stuff with any objectivity. It's really all totally subjective to me; I can recall the writing process of pretty much every single song I've recorded, and it's not something I really want to relive! I just can't really take stock.

"I guess the fact that I always wanted to be better -- not that I was totally disappointed with the things I'd done -- is what kept me moving. As soon as I was finished with something, I wanted to move on, rather than dwelling there for a long time."

>A set list to satisfy

This last bit might sound contradictory, coming from a man who, when on tour nightly crafts a set list from old songs. It has been suggested that Joel has been suffering from writer's block since the release of his last rock album, 1993's multi-platinum "River of Dreams," but that scenario isn't likely. It's much more probable that Joel just doesn't feel like killing himself to produce a rock record in a world where "the album, unfortunately, is totally dead in the water these days, and is likely to stay that way for a while."

Like Bob Dylan -- who does release inspired new recordings, but usually only plays a handful of tunes from them in concert -- Joel is now content to reimagine, wrestle with, and recontextualize a pre-existing body of work from night to night.

"When we do put a set list together, from a performing point of view, we have to balance what it is we like to play, with what the audience wants to hear, with what creates a well-balanced show. It's tricky. We kinda got a handle on it now. We keep trying new things out -- well, not new things, but old things we haven't done in a long time -- and if they don't get a good response after two or three performances, we just kind of take them out back and shoot them!

"I know there will always be obscurities that a few people want to hear, and these are usually songs that we really want to play ourselves, but if it's proven often enough to be a 'bathroom break song' for the audience, what's the point? I'd say a good 80 percent of the audience wants to hear very familiar things -- hit songs that have gotten a lot of radio play. And there are songs that aren't hits, per se, that they still want to hear, like 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' and 'Captain Jack.' "

Does this frustrate Joel, or make him feel confined?

"I wouldn't say it frustrates me," he replies, after a lengthy pause.

"It's an interesting puzzle to have to solve. Sure, there are nights where we would like to play more of the obscure material, but that's not really what people are paying for. And I have to respect that.

"I have to be aware that people pay a ton of money now for tickets, and as low as we try to keep our ticket prices (Joel's HSBC Arena tickets top out at $86.50, which is far less than many acts of his stature are currently charging) we still have to make sure we cover our nut and try to send everyone (in the band) goes home with some money. While it would be aesthetically pleasing to do nothing but what we would like to indulge in, I would not feel good walking away from a show where the audience was disappointed."

Would Joel ever consider doing something other seasoned acts have done -- taking a particular album and performing it from start to finish in concert? Say, "The Nylon Curtain"?

"That would be fun to do, and maybe in a smaller context -- if we were playing in an intimate venue, for a smaller group of people -- we'd be able to do that," he said. "But as much as that would be so rewarding for us, we haven't figured out how to do that yet."

>Woos younger audience

The irreverence and rebelliousness that have always marked Joel's musical persona -- despite the rather misguided popular notion of him as merely a sensitive singer-songwriter type -- seems at odds with current rage for "big business of nostalgia" tours bearing unwieldy admission prices (such as the current Police reunion tour, which tops out at $220 a ticket).

"I think it's a short-sighted on a lot of people's part, because the problem is, you cut out a lot of the younger audience," Joel says. "Younger people don't have that kind of money to spend. It's more affluent middle-aged people who are able to pay those kinds of prices, and you end up preaching to the converted. It's not very rock 'n' roll.

"Not to take away from having loyal, long-term fans who are older -- that's a blessing. But you always need to infuse your audience with younger people. You've gotta keep bringing in new blood! And they make for a much more enthusiastic, noisy audience, which helps the show in the end. Nothing can kill a show, for me, as quickly as looking down and seeing a bunch of affluent older people in the front row, who paid too much for their tickets, and they're just sitting there like bumps on a log. So for a long time, we've not sold the tickets in the front row -- we hang onto them and give them to the kids who ended up way in the back.

"If you look down and you see a bunch of young kids who are thrilled to be in those seats, and they're going nuts and really reacting to the music -- well, then you feel like you're doing something worthwhile and meaningful."

jmiers@buffnews.com

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>CONCERT PREVIEW

Billy Joel
8 p.m. today in HSBC Arena
Tickets: $51 to $86.50, available at the HSBC Arena box office, or through www.Tickets.com.

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