Hyde Park is baking. The turf beneath the 130,000 feet of the crowd is bleached and brittle as a thrice-peroxided perm, and snippets of dry grass wisp through the air like God’s dandruff. A guy to my left hands his hat to staff refilling water bottles; asks them to stick it under the tap; then upends the whole thing over his head. “I’m sorry if I smell meaty,” cringes the tipsy woman on my right. “We went to an all-you-can-eat place yesterday that my friend says serves the best chicken wings in London, but now I feel like I’m sweating out soup.” And thus, minutes before Billy Joel takes to the stage, a consommé confessional precedes a consummate professional.
American Express Presents BST Hyde Park
Joel is also preceded by a set from Natasha Bedingfield, looking heart-stopping in a sheer, white, crystal-encrusted jumpsuit and cape, taken straight from the wedding inspo Pinterest board of a Playboy centrefold engaged to a nonagenarian billionaire with a dicky ticker. Technical difficulties mean she performs several songs a cappella – demonstrating in the process that when it comes to These Words, everyone still remembers them (well, the chorus, at least); and that she has the impressive vocal control to belt out a version of Unwritten more embellished and ornamented than her trousers.
Next comes Daryl Hall, performing solo while Oates is presumably sowing himself wildly elsewhere. Irrespective of how much chicken they’ve already consumed, fans hungrily lap up opener Maneater. There’s a Michelin-starred menu of hits: Out of Touch; Everytime You Go Away; I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do); Rich Girl. However, it’s You Make My Dreams (Come True) that elicits the biggest collective swoon – perhaps reflecting the track’s perennially high position in lists of the UK’s top ‘First Dance’ choices, at marriages both spangly catsuited and otherwise. At 76, Hall’s voice sounds a touch strained during certain refrains, but remains full of distinct character and timbre. It’s the bottom few inches being poured from a stunning 1946 bottle, and a privilege to savour.
Speaking of wine, headliner Billy Joel doesn’t drink any more, but he’s an utter aficionado at intoxicating a live audience. He kicks off feistily with My Life: a proclamation to boldly follow your nose, and tell naysayers to stop sticking their own into your business. It’s chased by Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song): a bitingly cynical, pissed-off rant about being overworked and underserved by capitalism’s insistence that the common man must grind and graft himself down into the grave in an effort to be upwardly mobile. “Working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack” we all chant along, momentarily sounding like the aliens from Mars Attacks have invaded the capital.
Joel’s famed piano rotates as he sings, to give everyone a chance to feel they’re being directly serenaded. In jeans, jacket and shades, he could pass for Bruce Willis’s cousin, and looks like he’s just wrapped up some friendly business with his Italian mobster accountant before rocking up to charm everyone at a smart-casual fundraiser BBQ. Tipping his sunglasses to squint at the sky, he quips: “The brightest sun I’ve ever seen on stage is in England?!”
Although doubtless a quick-witted guy, this is one of Joel’s few jokes that isn’t pre-prepared. I was lucky enough to catch him play Madison Square Garden last year – a residency due to wrap up in July 2024 after a mighty 150 shows at the world-renowned Manhattan venue spanning a decade. Tonight’s gig is an almost exact facsimile of those New York concerts, right down to the singer prefacing Innocent Man with a disclaimer that he “started kissing goodbye to a lot of high notes in my 30s, and didn’t ever think I’d still be doing this song in his 70s… so if I don’t hit that note, I’m sorry” – before going on to summon the iconic E♭5 seemingly with all the ease of hailing a yellow cab by waving $100 bill.
Likewise, his rebuke as the crowd cheer the announcement of The Entertainer, from 1974 album Streetlife Serenade – “Don’t bullshit me, you didn’t buy it. Nobody bought it” – is so familiar to his band that long-time drummer Liberty DeVitto has the ‘badoom-tish’ already cued up. But that’s not to say Joel’s impression of a spontaneous raconteur is some kind of racket, nor that any aspect of this performance is jaded or lazily phoned-in. Conversely, this is a routine that’s been highly polished by a devoted virtuoso who wants every single night to shine. Even going so far as to habitually keep a fly swatter within reach to ensure pesky midges drawn to the stage lights can’t interrupt his playing, Billy Joel has worked like Billy-o to perfect this show.
He and I are both crying by the time Vienna rolls around, although Joel’s tears are due to epiphora rather than emotion; he has a medical condition that makes him appear weepy, and which gave rise to an internet rumour that he’d had both eyes replaced with glass prosthetics. That story’s a myth, but there are plenty of remarkable tales about him and his crew which are true. For instance, Mike DelGuidice – the band’s rhythm guitarist and vocalist who brings the house/park down with a spotless rendition of Nessun Dorma – spent 15 years posing as the very star he now tours with, in a Billy Joel tribute group called Big Shot.
Stories will be told about this evening, too. About the surprise cameo appearance of Joe Jonas on Uptown Girl during the encore. About how the original version of We Didn’t Start The Fire incinerates the recent Fall Out Boy reboot, widely derided for attempting to update Joel’s hit with new lyrics listing zeitgeisty topics such as QAnon, Harry Potter and Cambridge Analytica…but in jumbled, non-chronological order. About how Chicken Sweat Lady, who has been playing a painful gin-fuelled game of Snakes And Bladders for the final half hour of the gig, successfully manages to hold her pee for the Piano Man without needing to dash to the Serpentine Road loos.
American Express Presents BST Hyde Park
“Son, can you play me a memory?”, asks the similarly gin-loving character in the song from which Billy Joel takes his nickname. Tonight, he proves himself to be one of the very finest, not just at playing memories, but making them. For life.
Review of Billy Joel @ BST Hyde Park on 7th July by Alix Fox. Photography of Billy Joel by Dave Hogan. Photography of Natasha Bedingfield & Daryl Hall by Simon Reed.