There was only one man for this job. Who else but Billy Joel could host a massive farewell party to Long Island arena Nassau Coliseum? Who else had the personal connection to the area, the catalog to sustain a thrilling three-hour-and-20-minute show or the undying adoration of Long Islanders from Montauk to Bay Shore to Westbury? And could they really have closed out the dilapidated hockey arena without telling the love story of quintessential Long Island couple Brenda and Eddie one last time? It would have been unthinkable.
Nassau Coliseum opened its doors on February 11th, 1972, instantly becoming one of the major hubs for arena rock in North America. Pink Floyd, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, the Grateful Dead, David Bowie and too many others to mention all made it regular stops on their tours. Rock fans that had never stepped foot anywhere near Long Island knew the name of the place from countless concert movies, bootlegs and live albums. (The New York Islanders also played there for 43 years, and the Nets also did a five-year stint before moving to New Jersey in 1977.)
Just a little over three months after the venue opened, a debut album by a local singer/songwriter titled Cold Spring Harbor hit shelves. He wouldn’t get anywhere near a basketball arena for a few more years, but once he did, he never left. For locals, seeing Billy Joel at the Coliseum was almost like seeing Springsteen at the Stone Pony. Last night was guaranteed to be an emotional, special event.
The show kicked off when Governor Andrew Cuomo hit the stage to introduce Joel. His words were quickly drowned out by a chorus of boos from a surly crowd that had endured ridiculously clogged roads leading into the arena and the privilege of paying $35 to park. Inside was no better, with endless bathroom lines bleeding into the beer lines in the cramped corridors. Some concession stands ran out of all food besides potato chips.
All was forgiven once Joel and his band took the stage and launched into, appropriately enough, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” The energy didn’t flag one bit when he followed it up with relative obscurities “Zanzibar,” “Summer, Highland Falls,” “Everybody Loves You Now” and “No Man’s Land.” There’s almost no such thing as an unfamiliar Billy Joel song in Long Island, where locals are basically issued copies of Turnstiles and Streetlife Serenade at birth.
It was clear something was going on when a roadie brought out a microphone stand after “The Downeaster Alexa.” “I’d like to bring out a fellow Long Islander,” Joel said, describing his guest as “one of the great songwriters of our time.” The place went ballistic when Paul Simon walked out, and they cheered even louder when he played the opening notes to “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
They were less pleased when proclaimed just about the most sacrilegious thing one can say at Nassau Coliseum: “I don’t want to put a damper on things,” he said. “But just for a sense of honesty I feel that I have to tell you that I’m a Rangers fan.” The next 30 seconds were a mixture of boos and “Let’s Go Islanders!” chants. When it finally quieted down, Simon finished his point. “Well, the truth of the matter is that this stuff comes down to your family,” he says. “You don’t have a choice. You get the team your family has. So let me say this. The idea of the Islanders leaving Uniondale to go to Brooklyn is as sad as the Dodgers leaving to go to San Francisco.”
That won the crowd back, and they stayed with him as he sang a gorgeous duet with Joel on “Homeward Bound,” noting it was the first time they’d sang together outside of “Silver Bells.” An expanded horn section took the stage to help Simon out with a euphoric “Late in the Evening.”Nobody would have minded had he stuck around for a few more songs, but it was time for Joel to take back the show. (Though he later brought out another guest, his friend Kevin James, who plunked out the intro to “Miami 2017 [Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway]” before Joel surged through the whole track.)
Joel dug deep into his catalog for 1978′s “Until the Night,” brought out a large group of veterans for a tearful “Goodnight Saigon” and rewarded the faithful with a rare “Captain Jack,” a tune that fans have always loved a lot more than the songwriter, himself. (“Dreary, dreary, dreary,” he recently told the New Yorker. “It just goes on and on. I’m sick of the thing. It didn’t age well. It’s been busted down to ‘Private Jack.’”)
Before the inevitable onslaught of hits that wrap up every Billy Joel concert, he slowed things down a bit with 1976′s nostalgic “I’ve Loved These Days.” “So before we end and then begin,” he sang. “We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been/A few more hours to be complete/A few more nights on satin sheets/A few more times that I can say I’ve loved these days.” Joel is four years away from his 70th birthday, but his voice remains remarkably untouched by age.
The one-two shot of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Piano Man” wrapped up the main set. He’s played those two tunes at every Nassau Coliseum show he’s done over the past four decades, but they never fail to elicit deafening squeals of delight. The clock was rapidly approaching midnight when the encores began, but Joel’s energy somehow seemed to only rise as he did his signature microphone-stand tricks on “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Uptown Girl.” He sprinkled in a bit of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” into “Big Shot,” perhaps a throwback to the many rock gods that played the arena before him, and wrapped up the night with “You May Be Right” and the inevitable “Only the Good Die Young.”
At 34 songs, this was was a good hour longer than the standard Billy Joel show. He really wanted to make the last night at the venue special, and he was dripping with sweat from the effort. “Thank you Long Island!” Joel said before walking out. “Thank you, Nassau Coliseum. Have a great summer, guys.” They may be building an shiny new venue at the site, but the Nassau Coliseum is no more. But with a baby on the way and an unprecedented indefinite run of shows at Madison Square Garden, it’s pretty clear that Billy Joel has no intention of joining it anytime soon. And when the new place eventually opens, who else could they possibly bring in to open it up?