Music Review: Billy Joel – Piano Man (Legacy Edition) (2011)

Hi there!

Let me start this review by explaining a bit of my eclectic music tastes and how Billy Joel fits into things. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, but didn’t start listening to the radio much until the mid- to late-1980s. Instead I was raised listening to a variety of folk, Broadway, and jazz music at my house. So even though Joel’s career started to take off in 1973 with the album Piano Man, somehow I managed to avoid hearing much of his music until I started seeing his video for “Tell Her About It” (An Innocent Man) in 1983 or 1984. And I really didn’t dive head first into his back catalog until after falling in love with Storm Front when it was released in 1989.

By the time I saw Billy live at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1990 or 1991, I was a rabid fan of his Greatest Hits Volume I and II album, The Stranger, and An Innocent Man. But over the years I never went back to some of his early albums like Piano Man. Thankfully the recent release of Piano Man (Legacy Edition), the 30 year anniversary of Billy’s debut album on Columbia Records, features the original 10 songs remastered as well as a CD featuring his performance at the Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia a year prior.

It was that performance in Philly that really started opening doors. Apparently WMMR, one of Philly’s top-rated radio stations, had been playing “Captain Jack” from that live show and their listeners were going crazy. That opened the door for a New York audition, major label interest, and eventually a contract with Columbia Records.

When asked about Piano Man billy said “I never sat down and said I’m gonna write a hit record. I wouldn’t know a hit record if it bit me. I just wrote songs. I wrote them for me, I wrote them for the band, or I wrote a song for the women in my life. I was just writing songs for me. It’s music that I wanted to hear. If I didn’t hear certain kind of music on the radio, I realized, ‘Well, if I write and record this it’ll probably be on the radio and that’s what I’ll hear.’ That’s what I was thinking. Not so much about having hits, but about making music that I liked. I only really ever did it for me. That may sound selfish, but I’m the only person that I really know all that well.”

The Legacy Edition includes two CDs with rich, clean, and crisp remastered tracks. Piano Man was remastered from the original recordings. And the Sigma Sound performance was re-mixed from the original studio recording and features three songs which don’t appear on any of his albums — “Long, Long Time,” “Josephine,” and “Rosalinda” — as well as that door-opening performance of “Captain Jack.”

Of the songs on Piano Man, the album’s signature song is still my favorite and sounds great even after 30 years. There’s something about Billy’s style of passionate performances and storytelling captured in this classic about the regular crowd shuffling into a bar, from the old man to the real estate novelist. It’s believable without being over the top and who wouldn’t love to have Billy Joel playing piano at any bar they might happen into?

And “Captain Jack”‘s anthem to self destruction seems to be timeless. Joel himself has had several bouts with depression and alcohol-related issues over the years, so the song’s message of using alcohol “to get you by tonight / just a little push, you’ll be smiling” seems just a bit auto-biographical. With the rock-guitar behind Joel’s piano melodies, it really makes this song take on a life of its own, vacillating between slower moments of reflection and the full anthem sound with volume.

Between the songs (new to me) like “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” and “Stop In Nevada” and the live performance CD, I look at this as an important addition to my music collection. Plus after seeing Billy live on the Storm Front tour with 20 years of recording and touring experience, it’s truly amazing to listen to the purity of an early live performance from 1972. His voice is strong, emotive and very young!

If you are a fan, young or old, of Billy Joel’s music, Piano Man (Legacy Edition) is a must-have for your collection.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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