Monday, February 20, 2012

Billy Joel - Piano Man (2 CD Legacy Edition)

 Piano Man (2 CD Legacy Edition)

There's no doubt about it.  Billy Joel deserves his place in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.  Just the work over his pivotal 3 albums, The Stranger, 52nd Street, and Glass Houses cements this.  But prior to those albums,in late 1973, Columbia Records released Billy Joel's first major album, Piano Man. The album went on to sell more than 4-times RIAA platinum to date, and is one of the corner-stones of Billy Joel's Columbia catalog of nearly 20 studio and live albums.

Still, back in the day, I could never get into Piano Man.  Yes, I loved the title track (more on that later) but the rest of album left me flat.  It is a strange album after all, not utilizing the Billy Joel band, but a bunch of California studio musicians.  Plus, there's this inexplicable country-western vibe to the album, so different from the NY street level storytelling of The Stranger.  Perhaps it was this bluegrass feel that turned me off. Or the muddied production.  Or the lack of a "Just the Way You Are."  Whatever, I couldn't get into it like the following three.

Almost four decades later, Piano Man (Legacy Edition) brings the 10-song album back in the spotlight.  Completely re-mastered, the album finally clicks for me.  Finally, the sound is where it's supposed to be, vibrant and clear and full of punch.  The bluegrass vibe of "Travelin' Prayer," works this time, sounding rousing and hopeful, as does the rest of the album.  Still, not as developed as Joel's later work, and not as important as the following three albums, Piano Man finally sounds like a fitting introduction to a man who had a major impact on American music.

 Then of course, there's the title track, "Piano Man," still one of my favorite songs of Joel's ever.  The Lonliness and despair he brings forth in his observations about the regulars at the bar in LA where he had a piano-bar residency for 6 months are spot on.  The emptiness is clear.  The longing is palpable.  When he sings in the voice of the bartender, "Bill, I believe this is killing me, as the smile ran away from his face." it's one of those transcendent moments in music for me (like Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle") where I actually feel moved to the brink of tears. He evokes that kind of emotion.  Amazing stuff.

But don't buy Piano Man for the remastered version of the album (even though it sounds better than ever before.)  If you're a Billy Joel fan, buy the Legacy Edition for the second CD, an entire previously unreleased 1972 live radio concert (predating Joel's Columbia signing by a year).

This concert is legendary in Joel's fans hearts, and launched his career.  Early support for Joel came from Philadelphia, specifically the top-rated FM station WMMR, which programmed a live concert series taped in the intimate Sigma Sound Studios. Billy recorded a concert for the series on April 15, 1972. Three of the 12 songs that he performed were destined for inclusion on his next album (more than a year and a half away) Piano Man: "Travelin Prayer," the Aaron Copland-esque "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid," and the notorious "Captain Jack." Tapes of the 'MMR concert made the rounds, with "Captain Jack" turning into an "underground" FM favorite. Some of those listeners happened to work for Columbia Records, and soon the groundwork was being laid for Billy Joel to come to New York and audition for the label. The rest is history.

But what fascinates me most about this show are how fully developed a talent Joel was at that early point in his career and how positively awkward he was as a performer.

Musically, his songs shine bright.  His playing was impeccable, his voice superb.  And his early rendition of "She's Got a Way," is breathtaking -- still one of his best melodies ever.  Yet, as a performer, this awkward kid from New York was a hilarious mess.  His between song banter is reduced to horribly, ill-fated jokes, stutters, awkwardness, and loud slurps from his mug of beer.  And I mean loud slurps.  May even be a burp or two in there.  Truthfully, his banter was so bad, it would be painful to listen to if I didn't know how it was going to all turn out for him years later.  Still, as a snapshot of a young artist, it's priceless.

Piano Man, will never be The Stranger to me, but in this version it's an album worthy of the space it takes up on my Billy Joel shelf. 


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