In his 1989 hit single, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel attempted to catalogue a half-century of people and events in under four minutes of music. And, while the song was #1 on the charts, it was far from being a comprehensive history lesson. Now, over a decade later, an older, wiser Joel takes a far more subtle approach—carefully selecting two hours from his 30-year library of songs to comment thematically rather than directly at our new place in the next millennium.
2000 Years: The Millennium Concert is not your traditional live album. First, the venue is unique in the truest sense of that word—Madison Square Garden in Joel’s hometown of New York City shortly before the midnight beginning of the year 2000. But, on a slightly smaller scale, it’s a recording industry rarity as well. After having spent half of his life on the road, this is only Joel’s 3rd official live album (though numerous bootlegs and other rarities abound). And, the other two, Songs in the Attic and Kohulept, were a collection of live performances from his earliest Columbia recording days and from his glastnost Russia tour, respectively. This, however, is a one-night stand, an all-or-nothing one-shot—as the event itself dictates, a very brief moment in time to which Billy Joel is providing the score.
The most interesting and effective feature about this album is the song selection. The Grammy-winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer does not make the evening about him, about his greatest hits or latest albums. In fact, only four of the 25 songs come from his last two original albums. Instead, the album provides themes with a theme. That is, almost every song is about either beginnings, endings, or transitions—with, of course, a rock number or two to celebrate the fleeting moment.
The opening pair of tunes are really Joel’s only self-referential selections; “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” notes both the legendary feel of the evening and Joel’s newest move from pop to classical composition. “Big Shot,” the song of a loser who thinks he’s more than he is, nicely deflates that idea pompousness even as it delivers a big, rock opening.
The rest of the evening is for the audience, well illustrated by Joel’s everyman apology for the price of tickets. Some of the songs speak about the momentous occasion in title alone: “I’ve Loved These Days,” “Dance to the Music,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” and the wonderfully apt celebratory conclusion of “This Night.” Still others use their lyrical messages to comment on the event. “Summer, Highland Falls” is a realistic-yet-melancholy freeze-frame of Life, saying, “These are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known.” Slightly more optimistic is the inverse of “Big Shot,” entitled “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” about a loser who discovers he’s more than he is. “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” marks the passing of time, from high school to adulthood, and how even the worst circumstances can turn out okay. It’s this sort of mature reflection that makes contemplative, soulful “River of Dreams” the perfect companion to “Auld Lang Syne” from this pop elder statesman just moment after the ball drops.
However, if the evening and the play list can be summarized in one song, it’s the title track, “2000 Years.” Like the album, it’s a reflective overview of life through music—of wars and triumphs and history long past. But, when listened to all together, it forms a marvelous tapestry. Similarly, 2000 Years: The Millenium Concert accomplishes the same feat. No one track makes it worth purchasing; no one song is Joel’s finest hour. However, it’s the interconnectiveness of Joel to the crowd, of the place to the time, and of the songs to one and another that makes the experience of listening to it wholly worthwhile. If for no other reason, it should be purchased for the wonderfully prophetic and uplifting words printed in its liner notes from the one-time innocent, now jaded, piano man:
“Time is relentless
And as the past disappears
We’re on the verge of all things new.
We are two thousand years.”