Billy Joel hasn’t released a new pop album in nearly 20 years, but his strong performance at the 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert reinforced his too-often overlooked status as a top live act with a generous spirit to match his talent.
Now a viral video in which Joel gives a nervy college kid a once-in-a-lifetime chance to back him on “New York State of Mind” offers another potent reminder of what fans have long known: the Piano Man is big shot with a big heart.
Perhaps more significantly, the inspiring clip, with nearly 1 million hits, has made it cool again to like Billy Joel.
We’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of “Piano Man,” the album and song that lifted Joel to prominence. Over the next two decades, he established himself as one of music’s best crafters of pop tunes and as an at-times electrifying concert performer. Still, he’s long – and unfairly – suffered in comparison to the likes of, say, Bruce Springsteen, another Northeastern son of the suburbs who emerged as a superstar during 1970s and 1980s.
Springsteen imbues his songs with an emotional heft generally not found in Joel’s mostly – if not exclusively – lighter, decidedly more hummable numbers. And unlike his New Jersey counterpart, the Long Island-based Joel hasn’t been a creative force over the last two decades – most college students weren’t born when his last album of new pop songs, “River of Dreams,” was released in 1993.
Joel went a long way toward closing that generation gap with the video, which was taped during a January talk at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and uploaded to YouTube late last month. During a question-and-answer session, Vanderbilt freshman Michael Pollack asked Joel if he could come up and play “New York State of Mind.” Joel, momentarily taken aback, gave the young man a shot. Pollack played the song note perfect as Joel sung alone at the microphone, Sinatra style.
“The guy’s got chops,” an impressed Joel declared.
After the impromptu gig, Pollack told Inside Vandy, the school’s student news outlet:
“I went through a phase for about three years where everything I played was Billy Joel. It was all I talked about. So this is kind of a big moment.”
It also proved a big, built-for-the-Internet moment for longtime fans, and likely gained the 63-year-old performer some new, younger admirers who might be moved to check out “52nd Street,” “Glass Houses” and other key Joel albums. And it marked a big moment for the intergenerational allure of timeless popular music, courtesy of a great performer secure enough in his stardom to let someone else play piano man for a few minutes.
Check out the video below, in which Billy Joel happily shares the stage with a stranger: