Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Billy Joel – Piano Man – Columbia Records/Sony Legacy (2 CDs)

Re-mastered album traces the emergence of a musical icon.

Published on November 30, 2011

Billy Joel – Piano Man – Columbia Records/Sony Legacy (2 CDs)

Billy Joel – Piano Man – Columbia Records/Sony Legacy (2 CDs), 101:51 [11/7/2011] ****½: 

(Billy Joel – piano, keyboards, vocals; Larry Carlton – guitar; Richard Bennet – guitar; Dean Parks – guitar; Mr. Wilton Felder – bass; Emory Gordy – bass; Ron Tutt – drums; Rhys Clark – drums; Michael Omartian – accordion; Eric Weisberg – banjo; Fred Heibrun – banjo;  Billy Armstrong – fiddle; The Creamers/Susan Steward & Co. – background vocals; Al Hertzberg – guitar; Larry “La Rue” Russell – bass)

When Billy Joel recorded his second album, the stakes were high. His debut effort, Cold Springs Harbor was not successful, and suffered from technical problems (including being mastered and pressed at the wrong speed, leaving the singer’s higher pitched voice sounding “chipmunk-like”). Regardless, Joel garnered a fan base with his instrumental prowess and stage presence. He was an accomplished pianist, and developed a keen ear for songwriting.

In 1973, the era of the singer-songwriter emerged, launching the careers of James Taylor, Carole King and in particular a Western folk-rock sound (Jackson Browne, The Eagles, etc.). Consequently, the Long Island native incorporated these influences on Piano Man. The opening track, “Travelin’ Prayer” gives a clear indication that Joel is flexing his muscles as a composer and arranger. With a rollicking bluegrass tempo, the piece starts with a snare drum, adding layers of bass, piano and voice. The alchemy continues as banjo licks and violin envelop the melody. Joel’s vocals are assured, and his honky-tonk piano is dazzling. The title cut epitomizes the crafted songwriting of this era. With a descending chord structure (in waltz time), the singer weaves a poetic tale of aspirations (“…I’m sure I could be a movie star…”) and subtle disillusionment (“…Man, what are you doin’ here?”), against the backdrop of taproom society. Inspired by Dylan, Joel adds harmonica accompaniment. The song defined the essence of the performer, who paid his dues working in piano bars.

What distinguishes this album is the strength of the material, especially the hits. Despite East Coast roots, Joel invokes a Western muse on “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid”. With Copeland-esque bravado the exploits of gunslinger “Billy” (“…with a six gun in his hand…”) are juxtaposed with a New York version (“…with a six pack in his hand…”), reinforcing the outlaw image of rock and roll. A concert favorite, spirited piano fills and tempo brakes demonstrate why many consider Joel among the elite of rock pianists. Long time fans must have been elated when the underground anthem of suburban angst, “Captain Jack,” was included on the album. Depicting the brooding, alienated drug culture of the era, this edgy song became a trademark.

Joel explores ballads (“You’re My Home, “Stop In Nevada”) that feature his singing versatility and tenderness. However, unleashing the rock and soul incarnation of “Ain’t No Crime” seems to reflect the innate verve of this artist. After the engineering malfunctions on the prior release, Joel’s status as a versatile singer is established with this record.

Disc Two is a previously unreleased, live recording that was done prior to the album sessions. Recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, the performance was broadcast on radio station WMMR. Along with upcoming tracks from Piano Man, selections from Cold Spring Harbor, especially “She’s Got A Way” are rendered with intimacy. Joel’s considerable performance skills and audience rapport are on full display. A classical piano instrumental (“Nocturne”) is elegantly lyrical.

Billy Joel became a musical icon, dominating the popular music landscape. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame (1999) and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame (1992), he has sold more than 150 million records. Piano Man started it all.

Disc One (Studio): Travelin’ Prayer; Piano Man; Ain’t No Crime; You’re My Home; The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; Worse Comes To Worst; If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You); Somewhere Along The Line; Captain Jack

Disc Two (Live): Intro; Falling Of The Rain; Travelin’ Prayer; The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; She’s Got A Way; Everybody Loves You Now; Nocturne; Station ID; Turnaround; Long, Long Time; Captain Jack; Josephine; Rosalinda; Tomorrow Is Today

—Robbie Gerson

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