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Fans revel in rare chance to see Billy Joel live

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Published:   |   Updated: January 18, 2014 at 12:42 AM

TAMPA — There’s a certain comfort about a family standing around a piano, telling stories, sharing laughs, and appreciating the camaraderie that only comes with years of intimacy and familiarity.

Billy Joel knows all about telling stories, from a piano man serenading lonely businessmen to high school sweethearts who didn’t live happily ever after to the broken promises in a Pennsylvania town.

On Friday, Joel took his familiar place behind the Steinway and delighted a sold-out crowd of 20,070 at the Forum with a heartfelt performance befitting a virtuoso who has been telling such stories for the better part of four decades.

This is Joel’s first full-scale tour since 2006, and first Tampa-area appearance since he faced off with fellow maestro Elton John at the same house in 2009. (“I was here with that other guy,” he joked while pounding out a familiar excerpt from “Tiny Dancer.”) The crowd’s raucous reaction shows his popularity hasn’t faded with time.

Joel, neatly dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie with black dots, has the charm of a cousin who is always a favorite around the holiday dinner table. And that came through at the outset.

After he was welcomed on stage with a standing ovation, Joel opened with a spirited “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”) and the hard-driving “Pressure,” complete with an impressive light show that was used sparingly — but appropriately — throughout the performance.

Along with the numerous tributes to New York on the big screen, what followed was a night of the familiar hits and engaging personality that has endeared him to a legion that embraces the man as much as his music.

While his voice may be a touch less robust than in his heyday, and a bald chrome replacing his ‘70s mop-top further displays his age, Joel remains ever the entertainer.

Joel led off virtually each song with an introduction to further cement that connection with the appreciative audience. He interspersed the dialogue with a bit of self-deprecating, humble humor — “This wasn’t a hit single so if you have to go to the bathroom, this would be a good time,” he said before “Sleeping With The Television On,” (And no, fans weren’t buying that.)

Same with “And So It Goes,” when he warned that he “might screw it up” since he plays it so infrequently.

He got a few laughs throughout while paying homage to his New York roots by throwing in a few “Godfather” piano melodies in between songs. And he got a rise while breaking into the infamous piano solo at the end of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” while admitting that he “didn’t write that one” but wishes he had.

There was no shortage of energy during the 2 1/2-hour performance, and plenty of support from his talented musicians. Carl Fischer rocked the flugelhorn solo in “Zanzibar,” and Joel’s standing ovation for “New York State of Mind” was due largely to Mark Rivera’s inspired saxophone play.

“A River of Dreams” featured a soulful blend of great harmonies and drums that transitioned wonderfully into “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” — drawing another standing ovation and providing another perfect vehicle for Fisher’s talents — and Joel’s signature “Piano Man.”

It all built to a fitting climax. Fans jumped to their feet, swaying and singing along to “Big Shot” and Joel’s stepping away from the rotating piano for the first time for “Still Rock and Roll To Me,” complete with Joel juggling the microphone stand to the crowd’s approval, before rounding out the night with a Forum sing-along for “You May Be Right” and “Only The Good Die Young.”

At 64, Joel has settled into a comfortable niche, opting to remain close to his New York roots and play Madison Square Garden once a month rather than trying to reinvent himself. So, there’s no telling if (or when) Tampa fans can catch Joel in concert mode again.

If this is how that story ends, he could not have written a better script.

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