Pic via Instagram
I swear to God, I watched two people get married during a Billy Joel concert last night. I don't think it particularly mattered that it was Billy Joel playing—the real occasion for the wedding was Bonnaroo itself—but of course Billy Joel was playing. Billy Joel's music plays at weddings. That's one of the many things it's meant for. When Billy Joel started playing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” my friend standing next to me shouted “this was my parents' wedding song” and proceeded to text his parents. I responded by jumping on his back shouting the words. That's another thing about Billy Joel: You know the words to his songs, even if you're not quite sure you do. Billy Joel is eternal. Bonnaroo could not have picked a better headliner.
That said, Billy Joel was probably not the reason most people were there. In terms of hip, buzzy performers that the festival might have booked as a headliner, Billy Joel had to be pretty far down the list, but that's not his role anyway. Unlike Deadmau5 or Kendrick Lamar or Mumford and Sons, Billy Joel is not someone who's really working the festival circuit in 2015. And that, naturally, is what made him so perfect to close out Bonnaroo, a weekend of positivity and togetherness. We were all there to get together in a field and sing along to something together, and Billy Joel is someone who a bunch of people whose music tastes might not otherwise overlap—all the aforementioned Deadmau5, Kendrick, and Mumford fans—can all get in a field and sing along to. People who were absolute strangers to me four days earlier were, by now, close friends with their arms around my shoulders swaying with me as we sang “She's Always a Woman.” That's the power of Bonnaroo paired with the power of Billy Joel for super bonus combo KO points.
One of the marvels of Billy Joel is that he sells out a show at Madison Square Garden once a month. He is the one and only resident act at perhaps the most famous concert venue in the world—one that holds 18,000 people. He can do that because seeing a Billy Joel concert is like flipping through an American songbook. All of life is contained in these songs. Billy Joel just gets it. By now he's a little grizzled and bald, and, despite being fabulously wealthy, he has the all-American, down-to-earth charm of your badass uncle. His stage banter is fucking cool. He greeted the crowd with a “Bonsoir, Bonnaroo,” giving the “roo” a roll of French emphasis. He called out a reserved area at the front of the crowd for being “the rich people tickets”, and later he pointed out that he can drink at his shows because he gets to ride away in a limousine. After “She's Always a Woman” he quipped that the song was for his ex-wife, adding, “obviously it didn't work out” (bummer, by the way, for the happy couple who exchanged vows as it played, but such is life).
He's funny and matter-of-fact and a little acerbic, able to see and, more importantly, appreciate the ridiculousness of his life. He knows how fun his concert is, and he seems to take joy in the effortlessness with which he can entertain an impossibly large crowd of people. At one point he brought out his roadie (so he said, anyway; I was, appropriately, far in the back, so it could have been anyone) to sing AC/DC's “Highway to Hell” and, after a pretty knockout rendition, Joel punctuated the performance with “that's how it's done, bitches!” Billy Joel is still a chill as hell Long Islander. He is one of us, simply the merry guy at the bar leading the jukebox sing-along, except he also happens to be the guy who wrote all the jukebox sing-alongs.
Everyone high fives each other all the time for no reason at Bonnaroo, but during “You May Be Right” (a.k.a. the song that goes “it just may be a lunatic you're looking for”; you know it), as some people began to file out in preparation for their long drives home, a legitimate train of high five giving broke out. Once again, everything about the moment had come together. Bonnaroo and Billy Joel! How thrilling, by the way, was it to hear this guy, who's basically at the level of mythical entity where you cease to seem real and also probably get your face on money, say the word Bonnaroo? Anyway, we were all the lunatics that we were looking for, and we had all found each other, and we were all high fiving. All our dreams about positivity and finding the perfect moment this weekend had come together. We didn't need the reminder, but when Billy Joel closed out the show with the epic—and I mean that in the true, Greek epic sense—“Only the Good Die Young” we were all prepared to seize the moment and live like this, on the edge, having fun, forever.
But the true moment that captured the power of Billy Joel, that gave me chills, that made Bonnaroo float off into space and feel realer than anything had ever felt, came a few songs earlier, in the last song before the encore. Billy Joel played the inevitable: “Piano Man.” If it's not the greatest song ever written then it's certainly among top five. It captures such a specific experience, yet it is totally universal. It's a song about solitude that demands a group chorus. It transforms the loneliness of its characters, who have found that this bar is better than drinking alone, into togetherness for its listeners. It is alchemical, and its gold is the beauty of life itself.
It's a song about hopelessness that erases that hopelessness and turns it into hope: “I'm sure that I could be a movie star, if I could get out of this place,” one character says. And just in that line, the way it's sung and we rally around it, the possibility of escaping out of this place and really making this pipe dream happen comes to life. It's not unlike Bonnaroo itself, a playground where the infinite possibilities of life seem to stretch out ahead of us with extra clarity. The festival is a world in which you can sit around in the campground with a bunch of people you've just met and all decide with 100 percent certainty that you will go visit the friend you just made in Peru when he heads there next month. You don't even know his name, but you're in this together.
Artists often pull the trick of cutting out their vocals during a big lyric, but I've never heard it work like it did with “Piano Man” last night. For the final chorus, the lights shone out on the crowd and it took up the words in a roar, every syllable crystal clear. It was otherworldly. We were all in the mood for a melody, and Billy Joel had us feeling all right. Earlier in the day, Brandi Carlile had called the festival “the kingdom of Bonnaroo,” and now, for one last moment, we were living in that fantasy world. Here we were, with this melody, every one of us royalty, every one of us thrilled to be in this place, singing along.
Kyle Kramer actually lived through Bonnaroo. He's on Twitter.