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Years later, Joel remains a showman's entertainer

Billy Joel hasn't put out any new music in 13 years, but he has been practicing piano. The 56-year-old singer-songwriter kicked off his sold-out Garden show last night, the first of three Boston dates, as the human jackhammer, nailing the intro to ''Angry Young Man," in near-ridiculous rapid fire, chops-heavy band in tow.

Two-and-a-half hours of mostly greatest hits followed, amiably curated by the artist -- who supplied vintages, album titles, and brief commentary along the lines of a helpful docent.

''Ballad of Billy the Kid," we learned, is historically inaccurate. ''The Great Wall of China" was written when he was angry with his ex-manager. And so on. Joel isn't the most charismatic of showmen; he invited fans seated behind the stage to check their makeup on the back of his head. But at his best, he's a fine tunesmith, and even if big-money saloon songs aren't your bag, there's no arguing with ''New York State of Mind" and ''Piano Man." They just work, and Joel and his excellent, old-school sidemen (and woman) played them with all the sentimental gusto they deserved.

There were, not surprisingly, few surprises. A couple of obscure tracks made the set list -- among them ''Everybody Loves You Now," a folk-rocker from 1971's ''Cold Spring Harbor" that, Joel noted, he used to sing at the late great Paul's Mall. The evening was devoted to crowd-pleasers, and the crowd was pleased to hear ''Stiletto," which featured the most acoustically-pristine finger-snapping in memory, ''Zanzibar," with its sleek double-time flugelhorn break, and snappy ''Allentown," during which Joel trotted out his impressive arsenal of man-made factory noises.

That nearly all of the 26 songs have stood the test of time was testament to Joel's often underrated stature as a pop-radio classicist. That ''Just the Way You Are" was excluded from the set was testament to his good taste. Glaring exceptions -- performed back-to-back -- were ''Sometimes a Fantasy," a dreadful ditty that evoked Pat Benatar in a '50s mood, and ''Sleeping With the Television On," another tinny rocker that strained toward a vaguely distant and unappealing past.

Redemption arrived shortly in the form of a throat-shredding, soul-saturated ''In the Midnight Hour" sung in tribute to Wilson Pickett, who died yesterday.

Despite his milquetoast image, Joel is a political man. ''Goodnight Saigon," a solid sweeping ballad and a moving portrait of war, was ornamented onstage with four actual swaying veterans, arms linked under ghostly lights. And while ''We Didn't Start the Fire" won't advance Joel's guitar-god credentials, it did get fists and blood pumping in preparation for the grand-slam, high-octane (relatively speaking) finale: ''Big Shot," ''It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me," ''You May Be Right," ''Only the Good Die Young," ''Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," and ''Piano Man."

On the eve of a record-breaking 11-show run at Madison Square Garden, it's clear neither the passing years nor changing fashions have dimmed Billy Joel's star.

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