For those who don’t make it to the front rows, another time-honored enticement is the crowdsourcing of the playlist. For decades now, a few times during every concert, Joel offers a choice between two songs and lets the popular vote decide the winner. These results can often surprise; in a match-up between “Keeping the Faith,” one of the best songs written by Joel or anyone else in the 1980s, the Garden crowd overwhelmingly preferred “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” a drearier concern song about the plight of commercial fishermen on Long Island.
The song was, tellingly, notably, shockingly, the only moment of the entire night where even the slightest scintilla of politics seemed detectable. (It seems noteworthy in 2017 that Joel, perhaps in an effort to preserve his broad appeal, has shrewdly maintained a Michael Jordan-esque aversion to partisan politics. “Who cares about the political opinions of a piano player?” he sighed in May 2016, after Donald Trump construed an in-concert dedication of “The Entertainer” to the Trump campaign as a compliment. Joel did eventually endorse Hillary Clinton for president.) In a climate where even soda ads can’t help but fizz with factional messaging, finding oneself in a politically agnostic mega-event halfway between Zuccotti Park and Trump Tower is both a bit disorienting and reassuring.
When I suggested to DelGuidice that “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” had benefitted from the bias of a local crowd, he dismissed it, explaining that it was just one song that had recently become popular again among fans everywhere. A better example, he offered, was “Vienna,” a slow-moving B-side from Joel’s breakthrough 1977 album The Stranger, that has recently enjoyed a second life as cover fodder for Ariana Grande and on shows like Smash and American Idol. “We’ve put that song against almost every hit song in concert and the crowd picks ‘Vienna,’ he explained. “And that was an album cut, that wasn’t even a hit. I could attribute it to how good the song is, that’s one of those that takes you to a place … We usually have to change guitars for different songs. Whenever ‘Vienna’ is against something, I just keep the ‘Vienna’ guitar on.”
Indeed, at the Madison Square Garden show, the vote between “Vienna” and “Summer, Highland Falls,” another older, mellow, relatively darkhorse track, wasn’t even close. But as the song started to play, the crowd’s attention quickly drifted from the stage to the fourth row where a throng of fans was unfurling a banner. In front of the banner, a young suitor dropped to a knee to propose marriage to his girlfriend.
DelGuidice stretched a little bit to remember this episode when I reminded him of it. Apparently, proposals of marriage are not only common at Billy Joel concerts (“Happens a lot!”), but even pretty frequent at Billy Joel cover band gigs. “Over the last 18 years, it’s happened probably a good 15 times [at Big Shot shows], which is a lot,” he offered. “If you average it out, that’s almost once a year, sometimes twice a year, it depends.”
Back at the Garden, the newly betrothed couple now appeared on the Jumbotron, slow-dancing to applause. Billy Joel, sensing the moment and an opportunity, chimed in: “I still do weddings!”