Hurricane Sandy brought out the best in Billy Joel.
The New Yorker emerged from hiatus in December 2012 and all but stole that benefit show. It was a big, emotional showcase that renewed a touring career, and it brought him Friday night to a sold-out Consol Energy Center with fans extra hyped to see him after a six-year absence here.
It was a celebration of a rich, hit-filled catalog spanning from 1971 to 1993 and a classically trained, pop smart artist who needs no gimmicks. With nothing even remotely new to pitch, it was all beloved classics and deep cuts.
Mr. Joel came out big with the rocker he resurrected for the Sandy concert, “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway),” and then pounded into his New Wave, synth-rocker “Pressure.”
One of the benefits of not over-touring (and now keeping the show to just under two hours) is that his voice is still forceful. He was never one to shoot for high notes, so that wasn’t much of an issue, and as for his non-rock-star looks at 64, he looked up at the screen and joked that he had hoped to look like Robert Redford but ended up looking like his dad.
With Billy Joel, you get Borscht Belt comedy with the songs. He said of his throat spray on his piano: “It’s the entertainer’s secret. I saw Ted Nugent using it once. It didn’t really make him sound any better. He should have sprayed it up his [behind].”
There was a relaxed pace, with Mr. Joel playing what he wanted when he wanted, or twice telling his band, “Um, let’s do …” The early part of the set had treats for hardcore fans like “Summer, Highland Falls” and “And So it Goes” (solo), along with the Steely Dan-ish fusion of “Zanzibar,” with piano and horn work worthy of a jazz club, and “The Entertainer,” with Dave Rosenthal’s keyboards verging more toward Styx.
At the start of “Allentown,” people jumped up, happy to hear a hit, and he kept things upbeat through “It’s My Life,” “Sometimes a Fantasy” and “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” one of his finest moments.
His Piano Man side took over midway with the coda from “Layla” (“I didn’t write that one — but I wish I had!”), the elegant hometown anthem “New York State of Mind” and the ballad “She’s Always a Woman.” I hadn’t seen “Captain Jack” on recent set lists, but we got it, and it was awesome. “We used to do that one a long time ago,” he said.
When he got to a stunning, perfectly played “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” it was seeming like an embarrassment of riches. As the hits rolled on — “River of Dreams,” “Piano Man” (with sing-along), “Uptown Girl,” on up to “Only the Good Die Young” — it became more apparent why the place was packed, even behind the stage. Billy Joel, now the fourth franchise at Madison Square Garden, brought us a skyscraper-sized slice of New York, and it was class all the way.
Gavin DeGraw, just here two months ago for the Star 100.7 holiday show, was back again as opener. Once again, he roamed the crowd, this time merging his big hit “I Don’t Want to Be” with an attempt at Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” He has a punchy half-hour set that includes fun breakup rocker “Not Over You” and “Best I Ever Had,” which comes with a line that perfectly captures the current concert climate: “I’m looking at the crowd/they’re staring at their phones.”
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.