13 top-ten hits. Over 150 million albums sold. Six Grammy awards. A monthly sold-out residence at Madison Square Garden. Billy Joel certainly is worthy of a tribute. But judging from the ceremony honoring him as the 2014 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall on November 19, it was difficult to discern how much actual impact his music has had.
Joel’s legacy rests on a self-deprecating, everyman persona that makes his music, much like that of Tom Petty or Steve Miller, impossible to hate. Think of “Uptown Girl” or “Only the Good Die Young,” and of course “Piano Man,” his show-closing bar-band homage. His middle-of-the-road appeal will have fans singing his songs until the end of time. But does that really qualify Joel as influential as previous honorees like Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon?
Similar to the Yoko Ono tribute I had attended back in 2009, the Gershwin Prize Ceremony featured a star-studded lineup paying homage to the guest of honor by performing their songs. Yet while it was easy to draw a (nearly) straight line between Ono’s irreverent musical recordings and visionary art to the aural experiments of Sonic Youth or Bette Midler’s deliberately gaudy performances, identifying the connection between Joel and his tributees was not nearly as straightforward.
This isn’t to suggest that there was anything lacking in the performances themselves. Boyz II Men did a great rendition of “The Longest Time,” but it’s hard to believe that they looked to Joel when they were first developing their unique brand of Philly soul. Gavin DeGraw had the entire arena energized with a rocking version of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” though the power of the performance ultimately derived from the song itself, not its B-level performer.
Josh Groban (“She’s Always a Woman”) and Tony Bennett (“New York State of Mind”) gave the most powerful performances of the evening, belting out the standards in a way that made it seem that Joel had written the songs specifically for them. Meanwhile, Twyla Tharp presented a pair of energetic dance routines from her Joel-inspired Broadway production, “Movin’ Out,” that added a unique bent to the night’s proceedings. The only performer to completely miss the mark was John Mellencamp, whose version of “Allentown,” performed as a lifeless, Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen protest dirge, utterly failed to move anyone in the crowd.
Interspersed between songs were interviews and concert clips from throughout Joel’s career, along with congratulatory clips from celebrities including Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand and James Taylor. Once the tributes had finished, Joel himself appeared on stage. After being introduced by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sontamayor, Joel (flanked by House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy) said a few words before kicking into a mini-set of some of his crowd favorites. The crowd went wild for “Movin’ Out” and “You May Be Right,” as well as for the predictable finale performance of “Piano Man” (featuring a surprisingly agile Kevin Spacey on harmonica). As usual, everyone was singing along at the top of their lungs. In a way, that might be the ultimate tribute.
Library of Congress Chorale
- Everybody Has a Dream
- Two Thousand Years
Boyz II Men
- The Longest Time
- Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)
- It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me
- She’s Always a Woman
- She’s Got a Way
- New York State of Mind
- Movin’ Out
- Miami 2017
- You May Be Right
- Piano Man