It was a beautiful summer’s evening. I was sitting in the midst of hundreds of other students on a grassy mound in the middle of my university residences. It was Cape Town, it was the 80s and this was our natural amphitheatre for the annual inter-residence ‘concert on the mound’.
The programme that night offered the usual variety concert fare: a sweet-singing choral group, a cool, curly-haired singer/songwriter, an outrageous physical comedy sketch, some toilet humour, some church-camp skits, and a light-bulb-muncher. Nothing prepared us for the unassuming, moustached young man with shoulder-length hair who was about to take a seat at the piano.
He started to play, and he started to sing, and we mound-dwellers were entranced. When he sang Billy Joel’s Piano Man, he got us singing and swaying and screaming for more. It immediately became one of my favourite songs, now on the soundtrack of my student days.
I had no idea, all those years ago on that mound, that one day I’d be sitting in a baseball stadium in San Francisco on a beautiful late summer’s evening, watching a Billy Joel concert. It was on our first visit to America, and Billy’s first concert in San Francisco in four decades. When he played Piano Man, I cried. Of course I did.
It was September 2015, and we joined 36,000 fans in the AT&T Stadium – home of the San Francisco Giants – for an evening of Joel magic. Supported by Gavin de Graw, Billy opened his songbook with a thunderous Big Shot, followed by My Life.
“Hello San Francisco,” he yelled. “I haven’t played here in 40 years!”
He apologised that he was not, in fact, Billy Joel. “Yes, I’m Billy’s dad,” he joked.
He laughed about his advancing years, his lack of hair and several references to just plain missing the mark. I loved that between his huge and not-as-huge-as-he’d-hoped-they’d-be songs, he paid homage to his host city by playing snippets of songs about San Francisco, or by artists from San Francisco. It was authentic, and courteous. I felt it was a generous touch.
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair … Hmmm, no can do.”
A beautiful Vienna was followed by Zanzibar, a breathtaking arrangement around Carl Fisher’s insane trumpet solo. Billy told us how, as he grew older, he was finding it more difficult to sing the high notes. After giving himself a few squirts of throat spray, he promised us he’d do his best in the next number.
When he hit those high notes in Innocent Man, the audience screamed and whooped and whistled. It felt intimate and triumphant – we knew he could do it; we were right there with him.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood was followed by a brief taste of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit before moving on to his cynical The Entertainer. After the haunting Doneaster Alexa, Billy told us about his uneasy relationship with music videos.
“We made a video here in San Francisco. I hated making those things. I didn’t sign up to be a f***in’ movie star, you know what I mean?”
Tommy Burns’ guitar solo lit up Allentown, before two more brief nods to the talent from the city of gold. He played a few bars of the theme from The Magnificent Seven and told us he’d always wanted to write a soundtrack to a Western.
“I wrote this next song with that in mind, although it is completely historically inaccurate,” he said, as he chuckled through the fail-facts of The Ballad of Billy the Kid.
After a few notes of I left my heart in San Francisco, Billy brought us his beautiful tribute to home: New York State of Mind. He followed with No Man’s Land, which he told us “wasn’t a hit, and it’s going to die a death tonight!”
Moving Out, Sometimes a Fantasy, Don’t Ask Me Why got us dancing, and Always a Woman to Me got us singing and swaying. We Didn’t Start the Fire and River of Dreams kept us on our feet, before the poignant and romantic ‘bottle of red, bottle of white’ Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.
Brief interludes of The Mammas and the Pappas’ California Dreamin’, Janis Joplin’s Piece of My Heart and Santana’s Black Magic Woman kept San Francisco in the musical conversation, before he ended his concert and finished me completely with the extraordinary Piano Man.
I knew and I sang every word. I was transported. I was on the stage, I was on the mound, I was in my teens, I was in my strength, I was nostalgic, I was present, I was everywhere, I was right there in that moment.
We screamed and we wouldn’t let him leave the stage. Billy’s encore brought rousing versions of Uptown Girl, Still Rock ‘n Roll to me, and You May Be Right.
Billy may have joked about his age, however his musical talent and the energy in his live performance increasingly impress. If he has to wait 40 years to do another concert in San Francisco, I can only imagine how awesome that will be. I hope we can get tickets.
Sunshine signing off for today.