The Music Division Loves Billy Joel Just the Way He Is

With the composer on piano, Kevin Spacey guests on harmonica during a performance of "Piano Man." Photo by Pat Padua

With the composer on piano, Kevin Spacey guests on harmonica during a performance of “Piano Man.” Photo by Pat Padua

Gershwin Prize Honoree Billy Joel met Beethoven this week thanks to the Music Division, who showed the six-time Grammy-winning composer manuscripts and artifacts from one of his favorite composers, including a lock of Beethoven’s hair.  Joel was an engaged audience, humming along to Gershwin’s “Summertime” when he was showed a holograph from Porgy and Bess, and humming to a holograph of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Billy Joel’s music is some of the most loved and most accessible in American pop, its legions of cover versions over the years tackled by everyone from bar bands to public access television amateurs to cartoon Chipmunks to your local karaoke night. Wednesday evening, more illustrious talents celebrated his music, but it was the Piano Man himself who put on the best show.

In interviews conducted by the Library of Congress, Joel reminisced about his early career playing birthday parties in Queens. Little did he know that decades later he’d be sitting among Washington’s elite, hearing his songs  performed by the Library of Congress Chorale, Boys II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Gavin DeGraw, John Mellencamp, Natalie Maines, Josh Groban, Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein, and Kevin Spacey.

Wait — Kevin Spacey? The Academy Award-winning actor hosted the evening, which also included highlights from choreographer Twyla Tharp’s Broadway tribute to Joel, Movin’ Out. Spacey provided what might have been the night’s most unexpected musical cameo.

But the main event was Billy Joel himself. After five decades in show business, he doesn’t phone it in, and the Washington audience caught the wave of his perennial enthusiasm. Will you ever get another chance to see a crowdful of dignitaries, entertainment professionals and library staffers sing along to the “ackackackack” of “Movin’ Out?” (Our readers will get a chance when the event is broadcast on PBS on January 2, 2015.) Joel demonstrated his arena-sized craft with a brief set of ballads and rockers, his version of  “You May Be Right” outshining anything you’ll hear on oldies radio. The evening ended with Kevin Spacey on harmonica leading the entire cast in the composer’s signature “Piano Man.” In the Muse would like to congratulate Billy Joel on his well-deserved award – thanks for all the music!

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