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Joel Starts the Fire on World Tour

The `Piano Man' heads out with `River of Dreams,' his latest album

BILLY JOEL brings a new beard and a new batch of songs to his current world tour. The whiskers may hide his face, but the songs from his just released album, ``River of Dreams,'' reveal his thoughts about everything from urban sprawl to the significance of love and faith.

Boston fans got a chance to evaluate both last week as Joel made stop No. 2 on his two-year tour. Even with the questionable acoustics at the Boston Garden, his voice sounded strong and clear when he played favorites from the past two decades. The concert, the third of three sold-out shows, demonstrated that Joel has not lost his touch for rousing live performances.

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With some 200 songs in his repertoire, many of them pop favorites, it was easy for Joel to please the crowd with selections like ``Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,'' ``Only the Good Die Young, '' and 1989's No. 1 hit ``We Didn't Start the Fire.''

The new material from ``River of Dreams'' (currently No. 4 on Billboard's album chart) came early in the evening and accounted for only a small portion of the two-hour show. Joel played a sharp version of ``No Man's Land,'' a hard-rocking song that jabs at consumerism and suburban development. Most of the album's other tunes, by comparison, are tamer and reflect the challenges of a family man facing maturity.

``These two were born together and live together,'' Joel said before playing ``Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),'' and ``The River of Dreams.'' The first, a gentle song written for Joel's daughter Alexa Ray, is clearly influenced by his appreciation for classical music with its long, solemn piano solo.

The second, a foot-tapping song with a gospel sound, is the popular title track from the album. (In the middle of the night /I go walking in my sleep /From the mountains of faith /To a river so deep /I must be looking for something /Something sacred I lost).

The simple black stage (similar to the one he used for his 1989 tour) supported Joel and his six-member band and proved to be a musician's playground as Joel moved from guitar, to keyboards, to pianos. Stage lights, multicolored and often flashing, figured prominently in the otherwise unembellished show.

Pausing occasionally between songs, Joel would wave and converse with the crowd about everything from Bob Dylan's ability to remember lyrics to the question of whether he should shave off his beard.

In an unorthodox move, he asked the audience to give its opinion on which new songs to include on the tour. ``Tell us what you think,'' he said as he launched into ``Shades of Grey'' - a song from ``River of Dreams.'' The lyrics showed the contrast between the Joel of today (``Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out'') and the ``Angry Young Man'' of the '70s.

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Backing Joel on this tour is a talented band that includes drummer Liberty DeVitto and percussionist and vocalist Crystal Taliefero, who has also toured with Bruce Springsteen. Taliefero's vocals were especially outstanding on the chorus of ``An Innocent Man,'' the title-track off his 1983 album.

JOEL closed the show with ``Piano Man,'' a 1973 hit, which proved so familiar to the 15,000 fans that they sang it while Joel accompanied on piano and harmonica. ``You know this one,'' he quipped at one point to his singing fans.

But the sound of thousands inside an arena chanting his songs may be a thing of the past. Joel told local reporters before the first show that this will be his last long tour, but that he may continue to do some tours with fewer dates and at smaller venues.

Until then, he continues to pack the big arenas as he kicks off the first of six sold-out shows at New York's Madison Square Garden this Saturday night.

* Tour dates: Oct. 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12 at Madison Square Garden, New York; Oct. 14, 15 at the Spectrum, Philadelphia; Oct. 18, 19 at Capital Centre, Washington; Oct. 22, the Spectrum; Nov. 2, 4 at Capital Centre. Nov. 6, 8, 9 at the Centrum, Worcester, Mass.; Nov. 12, 13 at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse, NY.

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