"If a piece of music is good enough, it’s for everyone."
[[image|id=361|align=right]] This seemed to be the most powerful part of Billy Joel’s question and answer session in Bailey Hall at Cornell University last Friday night. The show, put on by the Cornell University Programming Board along with the Cornell Concert Commission, and dubbed “Billy Joel: An Evening of Questions and Answers…and a little music” was without a doubt one of the coolest, most interesting, and funniest live shows I’ve ever seen.
The show was more of an unconventional format where the audience would ask questions and Billy Joel would provide answers in the forms of stories and music. As Billy Joel, clad in a Cornell branded hat and sweatshirt, walked out on to the stage, his first task was to make clear that it was a question and answer session. The amount of music he ended up playing, however, was somewhat surprising after he made this statement. After a couple of questions that led him to reminisce about his childhood, he jumped over to talking about how he can’t play all of his songs without a backup band. While saying this, he scurried over to the piano and tried to prove his point by playing Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”. Although he was trying to prove that some of his songs would sound terrible without a band, he actually sounded great. I mean, how can Billy Joel [i]not[/i] sound great?
While talking about musical inspiration, he mentioned how he never really knew anything he was writing would become a hit. With this, he mentioned “Piano Man”. Of course, the audience heard the words “Piano Man” and started going crazy. “We’ll get this out of the way early”, said Joel as he sat down at the piano to play it. Joel’s spot on vocals enveloped Bailey Hall, filling the nearly 100 year-old venue with euphoria that could only be brought on by the Piano Man himself. After the song, he humbly walked up to the front microphone asking the crowd how a song in 6/8 times with ridiculous lyrics could ever become a hit like that. Joel’s mind seemed to jump around between thoughts throughout the show, leading him into talking about his inspiration for “Uptown Girl”. He said that the song was inspired by The Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll”, except the situation described in the song was opposite that of “Rag Doll”, where instead he was the poor guy going for the “Uptown”, rich girl. He mentioned that his other influences included Paul Simon and the Temptations. Upon mentioning Paul Simon, he ran over to the electric piano to play the chorus of Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, and from there went right into his own “Only The Good Die Young”, but played it as if he were Paul Simon. In an amazing rendition of his own song, he played it in a faster tempo and mimicked Simon’s higher pitched voice. This wasn’t the only impression Joel did with his music. When asked what his favorite song to play is, he hustled back over to the piano, threw on a pair of sunglasses, and said his favorite song to play is “Baby Grand”, a song he wrote for a collaboration with Ray Charles. He played “Baby Grand” doing his best impression of Charles’ voice during Charles’ parts of the song.
The most intriguing part of the show was when Joel called Cornell’s President, David Skorton, up to the stage to play the flute along to “She’s Always a Woman”. [[image|id=362|align=left]] When asked about whether he’s going to release new music and go back on tour soon, he played some of the instrumental music he’s been experimenting with, and said he wasn’t sure about another tour at this point. One audience member asked him to talk about “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, with which he started his answer by saying he won’t play the whole thing without a backup band. He pointed out that the lyrics for the song were inspired by “the golden couple” in high school, who ended up peaking too early in life. He played an abbreviated version of it while explaining each section of the song as he played it, mentioning that each part was originally a separate song. After, he explained that he got the inspiration for the music from side two of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”, which at times sounds like a bunch of short songs put together. With this he went right into playing truncated versions of the songs from “Abbey Road”, while talking about how it was just brilliant noise with nonsensical lyrics.
This was an example of what seemed to be the underlying theme of the show: how everyone can still enjoy music, no matter what kind of music it is. When asked how he feels about today’s music, he replied with “There’s always gonna be good, there’s always gonna be bad”, and said that unfortunately many great album artists go unheard because they don’t create top 40 type hits, yet still create great music. When discussing “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”, Joel explained how the song was inspired by the creation of all of the sub-genres of rock. His point was that he likes it all no matter what it’s classified as, and it’s all about having fun with music. With this, he went right into his final song of the night, “New York State of Mind”, of course.
Overall, Billy Joel’s impressions and slightly altered performances shed light into how such a great mind works. His performance truly showed how brilliant of a musical mind he is. Photos courtesy of Jason Koski, Cornell University Photography.