The crowd of 20,000 roared as Billy Joel cocked his spit-shined noggin, smirking and see-sawing his palm back and forth.
"Let's try that again," he told a sold-out Amalie Arena. "Just the Way You Are? Vienna?"
Boy, was it close. Because how do you choose? How does Joel himself ever choose, given the depth of his songbook, which No. 1 hit or deep-cut fan favorite to play on a night like Friday in Tampa?
Vienna won out – the right call, and in your heart, you all know it – and it gave Joel a good chuckle afterward.
"The other song was a big hit single, and the other was just an album track," he said. "But you guys found it on your own."
That's the beauty of being Billy Joel in 2018. The farther we get from Joel's last new pop album, 1993's River of Dreams, the easier it becomes to dig into deeper cuts from his halcyon days. That's part of the reason his last few years of concerts at Madison Square Garden and around the country have been so engrossing, not just for fans, but for Joel himself. This was his third Tampa show since 2014, and in spite of the angry-young-man's scowl that seems semi-permanently etched on his kisser, he kind of seemed happier than ever.
A lot of it's got to be due to the solid roster of classic album cuts – or at least non-greatest hits – that he continues to work into his sets, songs like Sometimes a Fantasy from 1980's Glass Houses or the countryish Stop in Nevada from 1973's Piano Man.
Occasionally such songs come at the behest of his fans. After opening with bombastic all-timers Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway) and Pressure, he started dishing out multiple-choice quizzes left and right. A half a dozen times, he had the audience vote by applause on which song to play next.
From 1971's Cold Spring Harbor, Everybody Loves You Now thumped Turn Around. From 1974's Streetlife Serenade, The Entertainer trumped Los Angelenos and Root Beer Rag. From 1978's 52nd Street, Zanzibar rolled the old man's car straight over Stiletto. From 1989's Storm Front, The Downeaster Alexa, stormy and thundering, sailed past I Go To Extremes. And from River of Dreams, All About Soul crushed No Man's Land and Blonde Over Blue.
Now, Joel superfans might quibble with some of these picks – I Go to Extremes and No Man's Land would've been rip-roaring calls, and I'd have killed for Los Angelenos, one of BJ's truly great overlooked gems. But ovations are ovations, and Joel knows the songs that get 'em.
"'Won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts,'" he snarked after The Entertainer. "I haven't been on the charts in 25 freakin' years. … So what do I know? Don't listen to me, because I don't know what I'm talking about."
Eh, from the gleeful reaction fans gave all-time karaoke killers like Allentown, Scenes From an Italian Restaurant and Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), he knows his stuff well enough. Joel's immaculate band gave huge, heaving life to so many smashes, including keyboardist Dave Rosenthal flouncing with flair through The Entertainer; saxophonist Mark Rivera screaming out a mean back-alley sax on New York State of Mind; and St. Petersburg's own Carl Fischer blasting his brass off to Zanzibar.
And Joel's pop-heavy encore seems algebraically calibrated to ensure the most sing-along glee in the span of a generous half-hour: We Didn't Start the Fire, Uptown Girl and It's Still Rock and Roll to Me, all with Joel out from behind his piano; Big Shot, Only the Good Die Young (with a few bars of Led Zeppelin's Fool in the Rain) and You May Be Right, all with the singer back on the bench.
Joel can trot out an endless parade of hit singles for 20,000 people a night for as long as he wants, but he'll have to stop eventually – and maybe sooner than some of us think.
Just before Don't Ask Me Why, he riffed out an impromptu cover of Paul Simon's Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard – a nod, perhaps, to a peer who this week announced his farewell world tour. There's a lot of that going around these days, from Simon to Elton John to Neil Diamond to Ozzy Osbourne. Joel's about to turn 69, he noted on Friday, and after that comes the big 7-0. You just never know when his latest show in Tampa might become his last.
But if fans have a say in the matter – and judging from Joel's willingness these days to involve them, they might – they'd cheer at the top of their lungs for him to stay on the road forever. No second vote needed on that.
— Jay Cridlin