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Joel brings 'A' game to HSBC

He never really wanted to be a rock star, necessarily. He knew he would be a musician, from a young age, as it was "in the blood," as they say, and the kid from Hicksville, Long Island, had it, and bad.

But Billy Joel always thought he would write music for others to perform, songs for others to sing. Fate, though, has a way of working its will, and Joel ended up having to sing his own songs, mostly just because he couldn't get anyone else to sing them for him. And so the world's most unlikely rock star was born.

Tuesday, Joel came back to HSBC Arena for the first time since sharing that stage with Elton John some five years back. On that night, he stole the stage from John, who had an off night.

Tuesday, he made sure every performer who mans that stage from here on out will have to deal with the echoes of his show, which was an inspired tour through some of the finest music to emerge from the rock era -- which, for our purposes here, will be narrowed to the time between 1956 and, oh, 1985, when the business end of the music industry fully took over.

Joel has not released a new album of rock songs since the fine "River of Dreams" album in 1993. To be sure, his particular slant on things both melodic and "textual" is sorely missed. (No comment on the Bush years? C'mon, Billy!)

That said, Joel has never lost the spark that lit his path from the Long Island rock scene of the late '60s to the stages of the world through the late '70s, '80s and early '90s.

Taking his love for (and understanding of) the Beatles, blending it with a penchant for memorable classical-based melodies, and throwing in a bit of "whatever" -- the good side of "show tunes," some hard rock, some prog-rock, and more Aaron Copeland than most people probably noticed -- Joel made pop music that mattered and became a huge commercial force in the process. (That used to happen, folks, I swear.)

Tuesday's show was not about surprising any of us, though there were some deep cuts, and some impromptu moments.

Rather, it was about a few different things for different sectors of the audience, which was huge -- just about a sellout, I'm told -- and full of energy.

For some, it was a wonderful chance to hear Joel, still (at age 57) in possession of one of the finer rock vocal instruments, lay into tunes like "Everybody Loves You Now," "Zanzibar" and "Vienna" -- none of them "hits," per se.

For others, it was about having a good old time, with Joel as the soundtrack.

Still others probably sought to relive their days listening to "Piano Man" in college.

All of this seemed to be fine with Joel, who is one of the more entertaining "emcees" in rock.

The set list was exactly what it should have been, with Joel grabbing the "88s" and blasting out the metallic arpeggio announcing "Prelude/ Young Man," and then easing into a warm, grooving "My Life." (That tune remains as "punk" to me as the Sex Pistols' "Holiday In the Sun," and I'll stand on John Lydon's coffee table in my New York Dolls T-shirt and exclaim as much.)

"The Entertainer" showed the young Joel to be much more prescient than he probably would've liked to be, but here, 33 years later, it just sounded like a smokin' tune, with the Copeland overtones making themselves heard again. Shall I run them all down, these tunes that ripped from the fabric of our pop (in the good sense) consciousness?

"Allentown" did Bruce Springsteen with much more sophisticated chord voicings, while "Vienna" spoke of Joel's musical home with grace. "New York State of Mind" is a jazz standard, clearly, and fell beautifully into the Scott Joplin-esque "Root Beer Rag."

"Don't Ask Me Why" wore its Paul McCartney influence proudly, but still came off like pure Joel.

It was all rollicking, inspired, touching, and butt-kicking, by turns.

Kind of like Joel's recorded body of work itself.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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>Concert Review

Billy Joel

Tuesday night in HSBC Arena.

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