The last song on Billy Joel's preconcert tape at the Capital Centre last night was Sam Cooke's "Workin' on the Chain Gang." For Joel, the only chain was the one of Top 40 hits from his 15-year career. The gang was 14,000 strong and all "in the mood for the melody." The workin' was achieved in expressive bursts that balanced a virile exuberance against introspective ballads. For 2 1/2 hours, Joel skimmed the cream of his own pop with convincing energy and professional e'lan. He unveiled so many hooks you'd have sworn he was brought up in the garment district rather than on Long Island.

There were problems last night with the stage lights and the Cap Centre's TelScreen, but the vibrant quality of the sound never faltered, which allowed Joel and his dynamic band to turn Landover's airplane hanger into a fairly intimate airport lounge. His percussive block chords and elegant arpeggios are as recognizable as Elton John's; in fact, the two songwriters share other basic traits as well--aggressive love songs that sometimes clash with total romanticism, ("She's Always a Woman" and "Just the Way You Are"), grand gestures tempered by intimacy, a wise guise that occasionally slips into petulance ("You Had to Be a Bigshot").

Joel pulled material from many stages: an elegant "Piano Man," a punchy "You May Be Right," an insouciant and oddly Peter Allenish "Don't Ask Me Why," and dozens of others. But it was the material from his challenging new album, "The Nylon Curtain," that was most impressive. Included were a tensile "Pressure," cooking with chunky guitar chords, a big fat beat and stiletto synth cutting through the night air; an astounding retelling of the neo-Beatlish psychedelia of "Scandanavian Skies," with its mad mixture of razor-sharp percussion, howling synth lines and semi-mystical vocals.

Best of all, though, was "Goodnight Saigon," Joel's moving tribute to Vietnam vets. Catching his emotions with a soft-spun piano version of the classic Quaker hymn, " 'Tis the Gift to Be Simple," Joel launched into some of his most visceral lyrics of fear, cynicism and bonding, with his band and road crew joining him on the anthemic chorus. Many in the audience didn't seem to know just how to react, but it was a powerfully transcendent moment in an excellent night of music.