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Billy Joel: Live at The Great American Music Hall, 1975 (album review)

As of this writing, Billy Joel is approaching his 100th Madison Square Garden residency concert. For most of these monthly NYC shows, as well as the infrequent performances at arenas throughout the world in between, he understandably sticks to his greatest hits with an occasional B-side (which are still fairly popular).

Therefore, it's such a joy to us Piano Fans to now have this latest live album, where it's chockfull of Joel's songs that he has rarely ever played live, songs like "Roberta," "Mexican Connection" (which he says in his intro banter that it will be "the first and last time we do it," and he's pretty much stuck to that vow), and, a personal early favorite, "Ain't No Crime." Even the well-known songs he plays sound raw in their newness; when he introduces one called "New York State of Mind," there is no reaction from the crowd. It's fun to think there was a time it didn't elicit loud "Woos."


And you know what song is not on this album? That's right, "Piano Man." While that trademark Joel standard was released two years prior to this recording, it was likely that in those days, he did not want to be known for what was, and still is, his biggest hit. (Now, Joel jokes that he "cries all the way to the bank" whenever he plays it.)


Yes, his repertoire was still in its pupal stage at this point, so he does cover a few of his contemporaries' biggest hits; Elton John's "Bennie & the Jets," and two originally by Joe Cocker, "You Are So Beautiful" and "Delta Lady," where he comically nails the growly, twitchy singer to a tee.


Joel has always been a pro at interacting with the audiences at his shows and symposiums, and it's a real treat to have it here. When referring to "The Root Beer Rag," he affects a snooty voice when he shares "Rolling Stone called this song....merely filler." (It is actually one of the best tracks on his Streetlife Serenade album, if not of his entire catalogue.) Later, the band experiences technical difficulties, and to the credit of the album producer, it was all left in, Joel riffing an impromptu ditty about it through a slightly slurred vocal. (Joel has admitted to his lifelong battle with addiction.) The experience is like you're actually at the concert 38 years ago now; it's intimate, flawed, but perfect in its imperfections.


Above all else, this album (released for Record Store Day) is a strong reminder of Joel before he became the music legend he now is. He still has a young, dopey demeanor, playing to an audience because he wants to and has a passion for the work. While Joel still sells it when you see the septuagenarian these days, his troubled finances, his few and brief crowd interactions, the lack of original set lists, and let's face it, his age (and aging vocals) is not quite the same as hearing him like he is here.


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