Concert review and photos: Billy Joel gives master class in pop music at first SunTrust Park show

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Billy Joel played for two and a half hours at the first-ever concert at SunTrust Park on Friday. Photo: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

(This post was originally filed on April 29. 2017)

Some might argue that a Billy Joel concert isn’t as spontaneous as, say, Bruce Springsteen on stage.

Then how about a sprinkling of songs custom-tailored for an Atlanta audience – Otis Redding, James Brown, The Allman Brothers, among them – to affirm Joel’s dedication to his Georgia fans?

Others might surmise that Joel, stout and shuffling at 67, isn’t as nimble as peers Mick Jagger or even Tom Petty.

Then where does a 30-plus song setlist over two and a half hours fall on the stamina-ometer?

It might not be cool to admit loyalty to Joel – unless you hail from New York, New Jersey or South Florida, where allegiance is required – but those who dismiss his tremendous output between the 1970s and 1990s are simply in denial.

Joel seems like a happy guy these days. Photo: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

The man is a musical treasure, and he has the highfalutin accolades (Kennedy Center Honors, Gershwin Prize for Popular Song) and insane catalog to prove it.

On Friday, Joel returned to Atlanta only two years removed from his last sold-out performance (at Philips Arena) and along with nearly doubling the crowd size, also christened the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park with its first musical endeavor.

(Click here to read what some fans had to say about the park as a music venue.)

“This is a nice, big, beautiful stadium. Look at this,” Joel, a devout baseball fan, said as he slowly spun on his piano stool and prompted his crackerjack band – capable of falling in with his every audible – through a few bars of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

“You’ve also got some nice-sized bugs here, too,” he continued, picking up a fly swatter from the top of his black grand piano and waving it around like Zorro with a mesh sword.

Joel’s renaissance the past few years, ignited by his residency at Madison Square Garden and continued with the August 2015 birth of daughter Della Rose, has resulted in a happy performer.

He’ll always be the guy sneering “Pressure” with coiled bitterness and equalizing the Disney-esque whiz of synthesizers with ice cold cynicism in “The Entertainer,” but now there’s a glimmer of a grin behind his delivery.

As his piano rotated on the massive stage, which was flanked by puzzle-piece video screens that alternately showed close-ups of Joel and lovely footage of New York brownstones and bridges, Joel appeared relaxed and content.

(Click here to see more photos from the concert)

As he usually does in concert, Joel provided the audience with several song choices and allowed their vocalizing to determine the winner.

“Vienna,” his pensive meditation on aging and satisfaction (or lack thereof) beat the gloppy lounge drivel known as “Just the Way You Are” (a song Joel has admitted he despises); a finger-snapping rendition of “The Longest Time” – prefaced with a “warm up” of The Tokens’ ‘60s hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – won against “An Innocent Man”; and, surprising no one, the meh “Leningrad” was ousted in favor of “And So It Goes,” which Joel described as the “slow, sad one,” but we’ll just call it poignant.

Joel was backed by his familiar crew: Mark Rivera on saxophone, flute and vocals; Dave Rosenthal on keyboards, piano and organ; Crystal Taliefero on percussion, saxophone and vocals; Tommy Byrnes on guitar and vocals; Andy Cichon on bass and vocals; Carl Fischer on trumpet, trombone and saxophone; Chuck Burgi (in a Braves jersey) on drums; and Mike DelGuidice on guitar and vocals (including an impressive “Nessun Dorma”).

He might be a little grayer and older, but Joel can still rock a suit – and a lengthy show. Photo: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

Not only are they an all-star lineup, but they add musical personality to Joel’s character-rich songs.

Fischer’s trumpet solo on the tempo-shifting “Zanzibar,” while not as punchy as its indoor performances, was still eyebrow-raising, and the triple brass attack from Rivera, Taliefero and Fischer at the end of “Movin’ Out” remains a thrilling musical swoop.

Likewise, Joel wisely turned the mic to Taliefero during the crowd-favorite “River of Dreams” – his last No. 1 hit from 1993 – to detour into a fun rendition of Martha & The Vandellas’ “Heatwave.”

Joel vets know that an introduction of a “special guest” to sing a “sacred song” means an appearance by hulking roadie Chainsaw to bellow AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and that the musically giddy, lyrically vivid “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is usually followed by the ultimate singalong, “Piano Man.”

The encores vary in length and selection, and Joel made sure to leave his mark on SunTrust Park with a romp that included “Uptown Girl,” “Big Shot” and “You May Be Right.”

Not spontaneous? Not nimble?

Please. This was a master class in the essentials of pop music longevity.

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