By the Way

Billy Joel proves he’s ‘King of New Orleans’ with marathon set

Billy Joel plays the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013. On Friday, Joel returned to New Orleans for a show at the Smoothie King Center.
Billy Joel plays the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2013. On Friday, Joel returned to New Orleans for a show at the Smoothie King Center. The Advocate File

What happens when you mix a full “snow” moon and a lunar eclipse, and an appearance by a comet, with a rock 'n' roll legend and the natural juju of New Orleans? You get Billy Joel’s marathon 2½-hour set Friday at the Smoothie King Center.

This was Joel’s first show in New Orleans since a 2013 gig at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Although he claims he “didn’t start the fire,” Joel basically set the Smoothie King Center ablaze and burned it to the ground — metaphorically speaking, of course.

For most of us on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans is THE music city and that’s certainly not said to throw shade on Memphis or Nashville. But there’s something about New Orleans — music and rhythm permeate the air. The air in New Orleans is thick with the sounds of acts like The Meters, Louis Armstrong and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Joel took full advantage of the city’svibe as he paid homage to its musical history several times throughout his show. He played “Iko Iko” and “Born on The Bayou,” “House of The Rising Sun,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and many more before he took his final bow.

One of the highlights from the “Great New Orleans Songbook” was when Joel’s longtime percussionist, Crystal Taliefero, sang a funked-out version of Patti LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” which was recorded at Sea-Saint Studios in Gentilly, produced by Allen Toussaint and featured The Meters as the backing band. It’s as New Orleans as it gets.

Joel also led his band through a rousing version of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which mentions New Orleans in its first verse.

Between his tributes to the Crescent City, Joel found time to play his own hits. From the show’s opener, “My Life,” to the final number, “You May Be Right,” Joel had the sell-out crowd up singing every word and dancing in their seats. He didn’t get too deep in his expansive catalog — there was no “Streetlife Serenader” or “Summer, Highland Falls,” but the “angry young man” did play a beautiful rendition of “Vienna” from his 1977 album “The Stranger.”

His backing band, which includes Ringo Starr’s sometimes music director, Mark Rivera, and former Joel tribute-band leader Mike DelGuidice, who sang a stirring version of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” was tight, but they were also loose enough to roll with whatever Joel threw their way.

The band really hit their stride in a one-two punch of AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” and Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” both of which featured Joel on guitar and a to-the-beat light show.

Although Mardi Gras is a few weeks away and Jazz Fest doesn’t start for a couple of months, this was the Carnival/Jazz Fest show of the season.

Let the hipsters try to find the cool after Jazz Fest shows in a speakeasy behind an alley on Chartres Street because the 20,000-plus people who attended Joel’s Friday-night show already know they have seen one of the best “New Orleans” shows of the year.

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