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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Billy Joel Plays the Great San Francisco Songbook at AT&T Park

Posted By on Thu, Sep 10, 2015 at 12:53 PM

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The Giant's dugout at AT&T park has been converted into a bar. The players are replaced by kegs and coaches by bartenders. Gray-haired couples in expensive-looking outfits stand in a short, well-managed line to get their refreshments. To their left, the spot where "Ball Dudes" usually sit on stools is occupied by baby boomers chatting with friends, sipping beer, and shuffling into their seats on the field.

I look down. The tips of my sneakers are covered with the light-brown dirt from the diamond. I'm standing right where a first base coach would.

"You look like a reporter," my girlfriend Ellie says, returning from the dugout beer line with her friend, Nicole. "With your little notebook and pencil like it's the 1940's."

It's an unusually fog-less night in San Francisco, giving the stadium lights a clear path to illuminate the duo's young, night-out-on-the-town faces. They look excited. The lights, field access, and tens of thousands of fans make it feel like a special night — and it is. Billy Joel hasn't played San Francisco in 40 years, when he was booked at the much-smaller Great American Hall. 

We make our way to our seats in center field as the lights go dark and intro music begins to play on the P.A. system. The anticipation is palpable, and then four snare hits ring out across the ball park.

It's "Big Shot" off Joel's 1978 album 52nd Street, and it's a lead off double. Everyone in my section is up and dancing by the time Joel gets halfway through the first vengeful, I-told-you-so verse.

Joel, wearing a dark blue suit, plays to the crowd with facial expressions while eight screens hanging above him do most the visual heavy lifting. Mark Rivera, the group's OG saxophonist, has always shown great chemistry with Joel, and the two exchange glances and smiles that the crowd eats up.

As "Big Shot" wraps up, the band breaks into "My Life," another defiant hit off 52nd Street that keeps the party going — but wait a second, wasn't the piano facing the other way just a second ago? It appears Joel is on a giant lazy Suzanne, which, paired with the screens displaying some cinematic imagery, is the extent of any special effects. As the song comes to an end we hear from Joel for the first time. He says hello, then gets into some jokes.

"I'm not Bill by the way, I'm Billy's dad," Joel jokes of his age. "But don't worry, I taught him everything he knows."

He does look a bit like he could be father of a younger Joel, who ran across stages dancing his heart out and flipped over pianos in fits of rage. He's subdued, relaxed, and comfortable. He plays a few keys of Gus Kahn's 1936 song "San Francisco" before continuing to joke with the audience about BART's decision to close its trans-bay service over labor day weekend.

"I want to thank BART for making it so easy for everyone to get here tonight. That's what you get after 40 years."

The joke lands and sets a tone for the night: intimate. A weird word to apply to a concert in a baseball stadium, but still applicable. It feels like we're in Joel's living room and he's about to tell us some of his life's stories. But — through a series of local covers — he was also going to tell us San Francisco's story.

He broke out into a short, incomplete 15-second version of Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)." Throughout the night he and the band would weave tidbits of Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Rival, Sly & And The Family Stone, Janis Joplin, and Santana into the set. He also did San Francisco-related or -themed songs, like The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming," and Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

He was playing The Great San Francisco Songbook.

Well, at least parts of it. Most of the covers would end 30 seconds in, after Joel would say "I don't remember the rest" or something to that affect. The songs would serve as interesting bookends for many of Joel's originals, and maybe a little distraction so you could stop thinking about why the fuck he was holding a yellow flyswatter periodically throughout the night?

Sonically, Joel's vocals were crisp and on point, although in his older age most of the high notes were supported by backing vocals or sung an octave lower than originally recorded. He nursed his chords throughout the night with a bottle of throat spray, which he also used as an excuse to stick to Ted Nugent.

"I saw Ted Nugent use this stuff once. It didn't help him much," Joel says, pausing for a moment. "But then again he wasn't spraying it up his ass."

The topic of Joel's ability to hit the high notes became a cause the crowd — many of whom have grown old with Joel's music — connected with. Before "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," Joel says the song was written with the idea that his time hitting high notes was coming to an end ("say goodbye to high notes," he jokes), so he might as well go out with a bang.

"I may not make it, but I'm gonna give it a shot," he says, trying to temper the crowd's expectations. "We're not on tape, so if we mess up it'll just be a genuine rock 'n' roll fuck up... pray for me."

About 40 seconds into the song Joel adjusts his tie and takes a deep breath. The music is building to the big note, and you can feel the crowd waiting for it, then the music cuts out, and with the hope of a generation on his shoulders, he goes for it.

"...forever!" he sings.

The crowd erupts. Behind me, a man shouts, "You still got it, Billy!" It's one of the biggest pops from the crowd all night — excluding the altered line "San Francisco baseball" in "We Didn't Start the Fire," because I mean, c'mon, that was a shoe-in.


Big Shot
My Life
San Francisco (Gus Kahn cover) (piano instrumental)
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (Scott McKenzie cover) (incomplete)
An Innocent Man
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover) (incomplete)
The Entertainer
The Downeaster Alexa
Susie Q (Dale Hawkins cover) (in the style of Creedence Clearwater Revival; incomplete)
The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein cover)
The Ballad of Billy the Kid
I Left My Heart in San Francisco (Tony Bennett cover) (incomplete)
New York State of Mind (with brief "(I'll Take) Manhattan" riff)
Dance to the Music (Sly & The Family Stone cover)
No Man's Land
California Dreamin' (The Mamas & the Papas cover) (incomplete)
Piece of My Heart (Janis Joplin cover) (incomplete)
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac cover) (in the style of Santana; incomplete)
Keeping the Faith
Sometimes a Fantasy
Don't Ask Me Why
She's Always a Woman
We Didn't Start the Fire
The River of Dreams
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
You May Be Right / Rock and Roll (Led Zeppelin cover)

Matt Saincome is still upset he accidentally ordered one of those sidewalk hotdogs WITHOUT bacon after the show. He's also on Twitter (@MattSaincome).
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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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