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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Billy Joel -- he won't go changin'

Relevant? Schmelevant. Visiting L.A., the singer- songwriter is content to stick with his hits from the '70s and '80s.

April 07, 2006|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

It's been 13 years since Billy Joel has had a new pop album on the charts and seven since he's headlined his own Los Angeles concert. Those factors created a blend of nostalgia and anticipation when the Piano Man came to Staples Center on Wednesday.

That's a fairly standard formula for Joel and other semiactive stars of the '70s and '80s who periodically arouse themselves from slumber to tour, relying on the strength of fans' fond memories to sell tickets and T-shirts.

But most of them feel compelled to offer at least a suggestion that they still have some contemporary relevance. The Eagles play a couple of new songs in their oldies-laden show, and Fleetwood Mac made a whole new album when the group hit the road again a few years ago.

Not Joel. He stuck entirely to songs from his two prime, distant decades Wednesday, and while that perspective didn't say much for his creative juices, there was something refreshing and typically blunt about his acceptance of the reality.

But it didn't leave much room for revelation or food for discussion. People's opinions on Joel are pretty much set, and a program of old favorites isn't likely to change many minds or stir the kind of debate among fans that enlivens the pop experience.

On the question of bang for buck, the 56-year-old singer delivered strongly, playing for more than two hours and treating the music and the audience with reasonable intelligence and respect. Up to a point. He did turn a road crew member loose near the end of the night to perform AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," and he became more anonymous himself when he switched from piano to guitar.

The early portion of the sold-out show was actually engaging, as Joel took time between songs to talk about the compositions. Some, including "The Entertainer" and "The Ballad of Billy the Kid," were written during his early-'70s Los Angeles sojourn, and Joel reminisced goodnaturedly about his time among the locals way back when. He also poked fun at himself and his recent string of traffic mishaps, mentioning that he welcomes the income from his concert ticket sales. "You wouldn't believe my car insurance," he quipped, prompting a rim shot from drummer Chuck Burgi.

These more lighthearted, personable aspects gradually faded, though, as Joel clammed up and focused on playing and singing, and the hits and fan favorites started rolling and rolling -- "We Didn't Start the Fire," "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me," "My Life," "New York State of Mind," et al.

All the old virtues -- the feverish urgency, the engaging pop craft -- were intact, as were the features that used to keep the critics' claws out. Joel's music usually struggles, unsuccessfully, to restrain its florid, grandiose urges, and his facility with a range of styles can make him seem dilettantish. And though he's carved out a niche of his own, as an originator he'll always take a back seat to the three contemporaries he most resembles: Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John.

If we didn't know all that before, it should be pretty clear now. That's just the way he is.

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