The crowds at the Moda Center arena on the night of December 8 were swarming, people packing into every section. Every row of the floor, all the way up to the back of the nosebleeds, was filled. It had been seven years since Billy Joel’s last appearance in Portland, and nobody was going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness one of the greats.
From a seat in the back of the floor section, the stage loomed large over the arena. There’s always a worry of disconnect when shows of this magnitude come through. The enormity of the production would make for a great spectacle, but the stage itself was far from many of those in attendance.
Joel's music is intimate in its lyricism and storytelling. However, with nearly 20,000 people there to bear witness to the night, recapturing those elements of his work seemed impossible.
When the lights dropped and Joel took the stage, any doubt about the character of his show was squashed. After arriving to an orchestral overture, the show began with a rousing performance of “Miami 2017,” then paused.
Joel looked out at the crowd, at the thousands of faces staring back at him in awe, then began a conversation that felt like he was talking to each and every person one on one. Just a simple conversation with Billy Joel, inside jokes and all.
“It’s been, oh man, seven years since I was last here?” Joel said. “Which of course means I’ve aged seven years since the last time I was here. So I’m sure you’re looking up here and thinking to yourself, ‘What the fuck happened to him?’”
The crowd erupted in laughter. The show had just started, and the air was already comfortable and light. Joel continued to riff.
“The last time we were here was with the other piano guy. You know the one.” Without skipping a beat, he gave his best Elton John impersonation, playing a quick impromptu cover of John’s “Your Song.” It was the first of many covers Joel would give the crowd. This show was for him, for everyone, and for the next three hours, the night would go where it went. A master was in control.
Though the show was led by Joel himself, his conversations with the crowd had one hand on the wheel. For the first half of the show, the setlist was decided by the crowd.
“The first album we’ll visit is one called The Bridge. It came out in, oh, 19… 80-something?”
He gave his thousands of fans a choice: “A Matter of Trust” or “This is the Time”? A measured amount of applause chose the former. Billy Joel obeyed. With each song, a new album was visited, and a new choice was given to the crowd. At one point, a fan within the first few rows shouted out a choice that wasn’t given.
“Everybody Loves You Now!” a man shouted at Joel.
Joel played the first verse and chorus, quickly, because he could. “You know who’s from Portland? The Kingsmen. They were great,” he said before launching into a rendition of “Louie Louie.” He told another story of him as a young man, sneaking into a Jimi Hendrix performance. He covered three Hendrix songs.
As the 30-song setlist neared its halfway point, Joel got into a groove of the hits, powering through “Movin' Out,” “My Life,” “The River of Dreams” and so on. The crowd sang, danced and got lost in the moment as Joel crooned through the classics. And it all ended in a magnificent fashion.
Taking out his harmonica, Joel looked out at every face before him. Really looked, smiled, and began his opus, “Piano Man.” With just Joel and his piano, the crowd watched in awe. On the final chorus, Joel stopped singing.
Twenty thousand continued to sing, belting out the words they knew so well. In a beautiful scene, Billy Joel, a star among stars, brought everyone together as one, just him and his family of fans.
After two hours on stage, Billy Joel looked out, took a bow, and left the stage. But the night was not over. Cries for an encore brought him back for five more.