- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

He promised to vary his performance, playing not only his hits, but other tunes from his vast catalog. Yet in the end, Billy Joel offered a false bill of goods to those on hand for his Thursday performance at the Verizon Center.

Right from the start, the Piano Man appeared to forget his vow, serving up a panorama of his well-worn top 40 tunes rather than those that are lesser-known.

Still, the sold-out crowd was forgiving. And who could blame them? Mr. Joel’s songbook teems with songs spun from the native New Yorker’s mercurial state of mind. Alternately angry, cynical, romantic and chipper, his artistic persona spanned his three decades as a pop star even as he refused to embrace passing fads.

The 56-year-old — touring in support of “My Lives,” his four-CD retrospective box set — kicked off the show with “Angry Young Man,” an early effort representative of the overly theatrical rock that characterized the 1970s. Its signature piano riff and delirious rush of keys were perfect. The acoustic touch, in fact, would have served him better than the swarm of horn players, percussionists and guitarists backing him on nearly every number. They played with admirable precision, but their mass and volume often dwarfed the material.

Mr. Joel performed his “New York State of Mind,” which took on added poignancy after September 11. Here, though, the song morphed into an arena-size ballad, a trait Mr. Joel’s work took on throughout much of the evening.

He belted out nearly all the expected numbers, including “The Entertainer,” a perfect choice since he proved to be a ham at Thursday’s concert. He mugged and struck gangsta-like poses (bad ones, at that). He was at his best when showcasing the early part of his career, a period that produced such gems as “Movin’ Out,” “Big Shot” and “Only the Good Die Young.” However, he abandoned the tried-and-true for more ambitious experimentations with tribal beats and doo-wop throwbacks. On the plus side, his “Everybody Loves You Now” (from 1971) fit nicely alongside the established crowd pleasers and gave the night a rare jolt of unpredictability.

Another pleasant moment came when a tattooed roadie named Chainsaw came out to perform AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with surprising fidelity. Mr. Joel strummed an acoustic guitar in the background. Afterward, the star performed “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — a sad reminder of why some songs should be left in their respective time capsules and never removed.

Mr. Joel was hardly stationary during the night, bouncing back and forth among three pianos while drawing from his extensive catalog. He’s still a force to be reckoned with, and though he has chosen to tour without new material, he’s a far cry from the standard oldies act.

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