CD Review: Billy Joel

(amazon.com)

Billy Joel
Piano Man (Legacy Edition)
Columbia/Legacy
By David Chiu

Piano Man, Billy Joel’s 1973 album, is best known for its two songs, the title track and “Captain Jack,” but it wasn’t a commercial seller compared to his subsequent hit releases. Still, it’s a leap forward than his debut, Cold Spring Harbor, in terms of the songwriting and instrumentation—whereas the former sounded intimate and stark, Piano Man sounds more expansive and assured. In fact, Piano Man sounds more country and western than Long Island and that’s evident on certain tracks, like the rollicking opener “Travelin’ Prayer”; the soulful “Ain’t No Crime”; and “Stop in Nevada” — while lovely tracks like “You’re My Home” and “If I Had the Only Words to Tell You” shows his early mastery of the ballads. As far as his storytelling skills go, Joel nailed it on the two aforementioned songs: the autobiographical and signature title track, which has been a standard of his live shows; and “Captain Jack,” a provocative song for its time. In the Joel catalog, Piano Man is an underrated work.

With the exception of several tracks from the 2005 My Lives boxed set, there hasn’t been much archival material released from Joel’s early career until now with this expanded edition of Piano Man: a live 1972 concert recorded at Sigma Sound Studios for Philadelphia radio station WMMR. It’s remarkable to hear how young Joel’s voice sounded both in the singing and his between-song chatter. With a set list drawing from Cold Spring Harbor and songs that would end up on Piano Man, the show is a harbinger of the confident and spectacular performer Joel would become to larger audiences (“Everybody Loves You Know” and “Tomorrow is Today”). The real revelation from this show, however, are three songs that have never appeared on a Joel studio album: “Long, Long Time” is a tender and comforting ballad; “Rosalinda” (not to be confused with “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from the 52nd Street album), a moving composition rooted in classical; and “Josephine,” a’50s-styled bluesy soul rocker that would have been perfect for Ray Charles.

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