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'Piano Man' Joel set to play Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 6:40 p.m.

Tony Bennett once called Billy Joel a “walking American songbook,” according to Joel's longtime saxophonist Mark Rivera.

The pop legend produced his first album in 1971 and since then has had 19 No. 1 hits and has become the sixth best-selling recording artist of all time. He had been in semi-retirement, which included touring occasionally with Elton John, since releasing his last album of original songs, “River of Dreams” in 1993, but is currently performing his large catalog of songs on a national tour and at monthly shows at New York City's Madison Square Garden. Many of the shows are or are nearly sold out, including his stop on Feb. 21 at Consol Energy Center, Uptown.

When Rivera performs with Joel, including the shows at Madison Square Garden, he says the enthusiasm of the multigenerational crowds amazes him.

“They're insane,” he says. “They really are truly longtime fans, and it's just amazing, to say the least. ... It's a blessing.”

Many honors

Joel, 64, has received six Grammy Awards, starting with song and record of the year in 1979 for “Just the Way You Are.” In 1992, he was given the Grammy Legend Award.

In 1999, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1992, the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, which also awarded him the Johnny Mercer Award in 2001.

Steinway & Sons recently honored Joel with a painted portrait of him that hangs in Steinway Hall in Manhattan, which features no other nonclassical pianists.

In December, Joel was one of five to receive the annual Kennedy Center Honors. At the ceremony, his songs were performed by Bennett, Don Henley, Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco, Rufus Wainwright and country superstar Garth Brooks.

Diverse career

Though he's sold more than 150 million albums globally, there's more to Joel than just pop music.

“Movin' Out,” a collaboration between Joel and choreographer Twyla Tharp, ran on Broadway for three years in the early 2000s. The score included many of Joel's hits and some of his classical work. It used Joel's song lyrics and Tharp's choreography to tell the story of five friends and lovers across three decades through love, war and loss. Joel won a Tony Award for best orchestration in 2003.

In 2001, Joel used his classical training to create a collection of 19th-century classical piano compositions, “Fantasies and Delusions: Music for Solo Piano,” performed by Richard Joo.

He also became well-known for some of the videos that accompanied his songs, particularly “We Didn't Start the Fire,” which gave a rapid-fire history of the 20th century.

Long-term guest

In December, Joel, who was born in the Bronx and raised in Hicksville, a New York City suburb, announced that he would play Madison Square Garden every month for as long as New Yorkers would have him.

The residency began in January to strong reviews. The New York Daily News said, “From the ovations here, Joel seems well on his way toward morphing from musician to New York institution.

The Hollywood Reporter said, “Performing with his crack eight-piece band that included such stalwarts as Mark Rivera (delivering a gorgeous sax solo on ‘New York State of Mind'), Joel was in strong voice throughout, nailing every note with a precision that belied his years.”

During the debut concert in January, he poked fun at himself when he saw his face on the video screen, remarking that he never imagined he would look like his father.

“I thought I was gonna look like Cary Grant,” he joked to the crowd.

The shows are virtually sold out through October.

International ambassador

Last month, Showtime debuted a new documentary titled “Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust — The Bridge to Russia,” which looks at Joel's 1987 tour in the Soviet Union.

He was one of the first rock 'n' roll acts to visit the Soviet Union.

According to, “Joel lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on the trip, but he thought it was an important thing to do. Joel says that his whole point was to ‘make friends.' ”

“Have them know what kind of people we are, make some people happy with my music and get something that can be continued more and more; maybe it'll grow,” he says in the documentary.

He also brought his equally famous wife, model Christie Brinkley, and young daughter, Alexa, on the trip.

The documentary will repeat at 11 a.m. Feb. 23 on Showtime, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24 on Sho 2 and 11 p.m. Feb. 26 on Showtime. Details:

Pop culture

It's hard to turn around without hearing some Joel reference.

Just last week, the school superintendent in Roxbury, N.J., used the tune of Joel's “The Longest Time” to deliver a weather-related announcement.

Joel appeared as himself in Adam Scott's Adult Swim remake of the intro to “Bosom Buddies,” for an installment of “The Greatest Event in Television History” series. Joel composed and sang the original theme to the 1980s sitcom starring Tom Hanks.

And, if you want to see a really sweet moment with the star, check out a video from last year when he invites Vanderbilt University student Michael Pollack to accompany him on piano for “New York State of Mind.” After a stellar performance, Joel says, “That's Michael Pollack. Remember that name. Guy's got chops!”

Susan Jones is assistant features editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7919 or

Playing for royalty

Though Rivera didn't join Joel's band until after Joel recorded the hit “It's Still Rock and Roll to Me,” whenever fans have heard that No. 1 anthem play live since 1982, Rivera has been the guy playing the famous saxophone solo.

For more than three decades, Rivera has played the saxophone for Joel, who comes to Consol Energy Center on Feb. 21, along with contributing background vocals, percussion and flute.

Joel is only one of the artists on Rivera's who's-who list of musicians he's joined, which includes The Beatles' Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Tony Bennett and Paul Simon. Rivera — who is Starr's music director and has worked with Starr and his band for 18 years — says he has worked with royalty.

“I've been very, very blessed,” says Rivera, who, like Joel, is a native New Yorker. “I speak to Ringo and still get a little tongue-tied. ... He's a Beatle.”

While performing with royalty has brought fulfillment, Rivera is establishing his own identity as a musician with the release of his debut album, “Common Bond,” released on Feb. 18. The album, which Rivera created with producer Jimmy Bralower, includes eight original songs and two covers, including Rivera's version of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Spanish Castle Magic.” Rivera got many of his friends and fellow musicians to contribute to the album: Joel plays the Hammond B3 organ on “Spanish Castle Magic,” and Starr plays the drums on “Money, Money, Money.”

Rivera had planned to make his own album for a few years and set aside several months to write songs. On some of Joel's tour stops, but not Pittsburgh, Rivera plays his own show the night before or after Joel's show.

“Playing my own songs for myself is my most rewarding,” Rivera says. “It's been something I've been planning for a while and now. It's finally come to fruition. ... I'm very proud of it.”

Rivera describes “Common Bond” as eclectic in style, with elements of rhythm and blues, rock and pop, and Americana.

“It's just a really mixed bag,” he says.

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