Billy Joel has played hundreds of 900-seat rooms, many back in the 1960s when the then-unknown was rocking the Long Island circuit.
But last night the piano man returned to a tiny room for a thrilled crowd at University of Massachusetts at Lowell’s intimate Durgin Hall. Billed as “an evening of questions and answers ... and a little music,” the event was one of just three college appearances for Joel this fall — the others were at Cornell University and the University of Connecticut. Maybe it was because Lowell had the country’s first music education program, maybe the city reminded him of working-class Allentown, but the megastar seemed at home on the small stage.
He dueted with students — “Piano Man” turned into a piano lesson, but “Leningrad” was awesome. He did impersonations like a Borscht Belt regular — his Bob Dylan, Elton John and Ronald Reagan were spot on. But mostly he took questions from students born after Joel’s last No. 1 hit (“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 1989). His answers where honest, funny and deeply self-deprecating.
“This is a hit record?” he asked of “Piano Man.” “It’s a drag. The lyrics are all limericks. And there’s 30 minutes of them.”
For a man who in March gave HarperCollins back its $3 million advance on his autobiography because he wasn’t interested in reliving the past, he didn’t shy away from painful subjects. When asked to reveal something about one of his songs, he admitted “And So It Goes” was about his doomed relationship with Elle Macpherson.
The night of extemporaneous anecdotes and songs wound down with a few Christmas carols. Saying, “I just have to do this because it’s the season,” Joel did a stirringly earnest “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The standing ovation proved he’d just granted many a Christmas wish.