Innocent, but never unknowing: At 45, Billy Joel can still get them dancing in the aisles. Giles Smith saw him do the hokey-cokey at Earls Court

Billy Joel arrived on stage up a small staircase to the rear, picked out in spotlights, a small guy in a baggy grey suit with his hands in his pockets, all hunched over, pursing his lips and raising one eyebrow at the audience, more like a comic than a singer. His grand piano arrived two songs later, rising through a circular hole in the floor in the manner made famous by old cinema organs. It was hard to know which entry received the noisiest welcome (both preceded cacophonies), but it's possible the piano just shaded it.

Joel had spent the first number, 'No Man's Land', charging about with an electric guitar, an instrument on which, by his own confession later in the show, he 'sucks'. (Actually, he's much worse than that.)

For the second, 'Pressure', he'd hopped up to the back to pound away at a synthesiser, mounted on a swivelling stand, so he could turn and face the people seated high up off to the side. Fine, democratic pieces of showmanship though these were, they were not what people had paid to see, which was Billy Joel, the traditional craftsman, sitting at a

piano.

Or rather, not sitting at it. Joel has a physical approach to the keyboard which makes Little Richard look like an antiques restorer giving his instrument one final polish. Standing up for extra purchase, he mule-kicked the stool away at one point, sending it skidding across the floor on its side and virtually embedding it in the neck of a bouncer, standing down at the front with his back to the stage.

At various points, he sat on the keys, pushed them and thumped them. He put his left foot in, his left foot out - in, out, in, out. He shook it all about. He did the hokey-cokey and he turned around. That's what it was all about.

Some of Joel's stage business is as familiar now as the tunes it punctuates. With his greatest hits come his greatest skits. There's the moment where he climbs aboard the piano and shapes up like someone about to flip backwards off the lid, but then chickens out at the last minute and drops pathetically over the side instead.

There's the exaggerated finger-clicking routine during 'An Innocent Man'. And there's the work-out with the microphone stand, where he pats it about, throws punches at it and sets it rocking precariously on its base, all the while moving a little stodgily, like Prince with arthritis (but that's part of the joke).

Joel was 45 this week, but what the people want and what he heartily enjoys giving are still intimately related to one another. The show was vigorously applauded, not just by the all-female wedges at the front (the fan club appeared to have block-booked the best seats) but by people right to the rear of the hall who danced and waved and reeled off vast chunks of Joel's narrative verse, got by heart.

It was just like the recent Barbra Streisand shows, except that everyone had paid a 10th of the price to get in and was having 4,000 times as much fun.

Joel's voice (one part Ray Charles to 25 parts American football coach) works better live than on record. What in the studio he turns falsetto, on stage he belts, full-voiced. As for the ballads and the snappy pop tunes, the usual comparison is with Elton John, but perhaps it would be fairer to move him up a few rungs, closer to Paul Simon, only with a sense of humour. The recent River of Dreams album is possibly not one that people will have been laying down as vintage Joel, unusually caught up as it is with soul-searching and self-scrutiny. (Joel has always been a better bet when writing about other people.) That said, it must be immeasurably satisfying for Joel to see the night's hottest response go, not to the inevitable oldies like 'Goodnight Saigon' or 'Big Shot', but to the recent album's title track, which induced mass bopping.

For the most part, the show settled for stripping pages out of the past, leafing through what has become one of the great catalogues of modern American song. It's fat enough now to be unwieldy. 'She's Always a Woman', 'Just the Way You Are', 'Movin' Out' and 'Uptown Girl' were just some of the near-universally familiar songs he didn't have time (or inclination) to play this time around, because he was too busy treating us to 'My Life', 'Only the Good Die Young' and 'It's Still Rock'n'Roll to Me'. 'Allentown', meanwhile, came over as authentically blue- collar as anything Springsteen has written and considerably more tuneful.

There was, of course, a sensitive personal matter to be broached - Joel's split from his wife, the model Christie Brinkley. He was never someone who waited to be asked. 'You're probably wondering, with all this stuff in the papers, how I'm doing,' he said. He assured us he was 'OK', just in case we were worried.

(Photograph omitted)

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