For the first time that anyone could remember anywhere, Long Island pop got to take on New Jersey rock as Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen put on a historic full length concert last night in Manhattan.
The reason was to raise money and awareness for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But for anyone who grew up in the tri state area, the evening meant so much more than that. The two rockers have had parallel careers. They’re about the same age, started at the same time, but occupied two different parts of the New York-New Jersey culture as homeboys.
The result was far from a typical political fundraiser. Instead, it became one of those rare rock concerts that people who were there may remember forever as one of the best of their lives. If we didn’t get to see Sinatra and Bennett, this was the closest thing to it for this generation.
Each singer had a family member on stage too. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, played guitar — she was the only musician who wasn’t a member of Billy Joel’s band. And Billy brought his burgeoning pop star daughter, Alexa, who performed a sultry duet with him early in the show of Ray Charles’ “Baby Grand.” Joel also had his current wife, Katie Lee, the cookbook author, and his former wife, Christie Brinkley, Alexa’s mom, who brought her 12-year-old son, Jack.
And of course there were politicians: Nancy Pelosi and Claire McGaskill represented elected officials. Caroline Kennedy introduced the musicians and the reason for the evening. From a box in the Hammerstein Ballroom, Michele Obama watched the show until Barack was able to come over from the annual Al Smith dinner. With Michele was the triumvirate who put together this complicated night: movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, music exec John Sykes, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
The only other bold faced names I saw in the whole of the Hammerstein Ballroom were actors Ian McShane, of “Deadwood” fame, and actress Lynn Whitfield. Later, at the afterparty at Cipriani, I ran into New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who was so wowed by the show that he only wanted to meet Springsteen.
But I’m jumping ahead. John Legend and India Arie opened the show, singing together brilliantly on a few numbers of Legends including his “Ordinary People.” Her vocals combined with his piano playing made for a socko introduction. But there was more to come, quickly.
Over a two hour period, Springsteen and Joel presented a well chosen list of their alternating hits. After he opened with “Promised Land” and “This Hard Land,” Springsteen gave the bottom for the evening, “I want my country back!” he declared. “I want America back.” Springsteen also warned the audience, joking, not to anticipate too high a standard from the performers. “Palinize your expectations,” he said, coining a new term that got roars of approval from the theater full of Democratic donors. Acting as his own roadie, he packed his guitar and mouth harp in a case, and ceded the stage to Joel, who opened with “I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway” and the duet with Alexa.
From then on, though, the night belonged only to the two stars and Billy’s band. They launched into “10th Avenue Freezeout,” then Billy’s “Movin’ Out,” which was dedicated to the Republicans. For “Thunder Road,” Springsteen brought on Roy Bittan on keyboards to supplement Billy, who then sang “A Matter of Trust.” Through all of this, the two men traded verses, piano and guitar licks. The culmination of that was on Bruce’s magnificent “Spirit in the Night,” which had not been rehearsed. Billy told Springsteen to call out chords — “the audience will like that,” he told me later. So Bruce yelled out, “C Minor, C, A. minor” to Billy on the piano. Springsteen playfully inserted Billy’s name into lyrics for other characters, and the number turned out to be an exquisite jam session.
More songs: “Allentown” for Joel, Bruce’s “The Rising,” Billy’s “New York State of Mind” and “River of Dreams,” Bruce’s “Glory Days” and “Born to Run.” The show finally concluded with all four musicians and the band on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed Sealed Delivered.” By the time Barack Obama took the stage and gave a gorgeously crafted, eloquent speech, the musicians knew they’d done something quite significant musically, beyond the politics.
At Cipriani afterwards, there was much celebrating, and Harvey Weisntein recalled how he’d produced one of Springsteen’s very first college shows in upstate New York in the early 70s. Billy and Bruce each fessed up about how they’d studied the others’ music for the show. Billy was a little disappointed that Bruce hadn’t subbed in names of New Jersey newspaper for the line “The New York Times, the Daily News” in “New York State of Mind.”
“I told him he could say the Post, but he didn’t want to do that,” Joel said.
Lots of stuff went on backstage, including Christie Brinkley and daughter Alexa getting into a long talk with the Obamas before the senator’s speech. Alexa wound up using Bruce’s hairdryer before she went on stage, and Christie playfully mimed being Bruce with it. India Arie told me she was on her way to Atlanta to finish her new album with plenty of guest stars, including Stevie Wonder. She’s sorry to miss tonight’s Julia Fordham show at the Hiro Ballroom. The two dueted on a Fordham album, “Concrete Love,” a couple of years ago.
And what’s next for the two big stars of the night? Billy is going to go back on tour with Elton John, I’m told. Springsteen is working on what may be a new E Street Band album, a follow up to the super “Magic” of 2007. But really, the next tour should be Billy and Bruce. Or maybe they could run for prez and vice prez. I’d vote for them in a second.