What the world needs now is NOT another rehash from Billy Joel. How many countless hits packages are there? We can twist, spin, and wring out the Long Island artist until the Sahara arrives, and yet there’s still another collection on the horizon. Let’s also not forget about tapping into the “live” conundrum, where you get to hear the hits—mostly sounding like the studio versions—in a setting with cheering as background noise. Yippee!!!!
Joel, according to the All Music website, has 24 compilation discs (domestic and import combined), and three previous live albums. So why does this 12-night stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden (spaced out over three months) deserve a mention, let alone a 7 (out of 10) rating? It’s simple: Billy Joel hasn’t sounded this good, either in the studio or in concert, since the early 1980s.
The eccentricity of Sir Billy has taken a few odd twists and turns in the last two decades. There was a much-celebrated marriage (and subsequent divorce) to model Christie Brinkley. He spawned a daughter (Alexa), who is carrying a budding music career in her own right. He’s been a huge supporter of Long Island fishermen and the fishing scene. Musically? Well, he did write some classical works, which may have been important to him, but not to his legion of fans. Seeing Joel in concert, especially in the last decade, was watching a man who just wasn’t 100% into what he was doing. He had threatened to never do a hits tour again—that he would only play his classical pieces. But even with Joel’s stance, like most others in the biz, he quickly realized that money speaks louder than muse.
Straightening himself out (he also did a few stints in rehab), he decided that maybe resurrecting the stuff that made him popular in the first place was not as putrid as he once made it out to be. Initially, his 2006 tour was supposed to encompass a few East Coast dates, culminating in a four-night stand at Madison Square Garden, Joel’s self-proclaimed “home” arena. But when the tickets for the four shows sold out lickety-split, he just kept adding shows—12 in all, running from February through April. (Even though it wasn’t a dozen straight shows at MSG, a record was set because the 12 shows were part of the same tour.)
Joel also had the idea to record all 12 nights, and have the best stuff put together for a double CD (and possible DVD down the road). Your humble reviewer went to the final show in the run, and I saw for myself that Joel was on. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy being on stage, giving roughly 20,000 people every ounce of energy. That energy and joyousness translated well to the two-disc package, titled 12 Gardens Live.
Throw away any other live Billy Joel material you might possess, unless it contains songs not included here, such as “Captain Jack” and “Just the Way You Are”, neither of which he did at any of the dozen shows. And even with 36 songs, there were a few curious choices, both included and omitted. I’m still scratching my head as to why the last song of Disc 2 was made a “hidden track” (for cripes sake, you EXPECT “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” to be in this package).
Joel pulled some nuggets from his late-‘70s/early-‘80s period and played them every night. And while “Laura” and “Zanzibar” are included, why were “All for Leyna” and “Stiletto” omitted? In their stead, “A Room of Their Own” (the “hidden track” at the end of the first disc) and “The Great Wall of China” were included. Huh? Yikes!
The recognizable and semi-recognizable stuff sound great, which is one reason to grab this collection—the sound mix is clear and dynamic, a rarity for a live album. Wisely, the first “single” (yes, purposely put in quotes—they’re all singles, for all intents and purposes), and the best live hit of the show is “Movin’ Out”, which is one of the best songs here. Other standouts are the opener, “Prelude/Angry Young Man”, “The Entertainer”, “Goodnight Saigon”, “Big Shot”, and “Only the Good Die Young”. Clearly, Joel sounds totally energized, and gives each song the fun and/or poignancy it deserves, and his backing crew is top notch. (I only wish they included their take of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, with the guitar tech roadie nicknamed “Chainsaw” in the package; it was both funny and intense.)
Who knows if this is Billy Joel’s last hurrah? Maybe he’s got a renewed vigor, and may even contemplate writing new material (don’t hold your breath, but anything’s possible). Maybe this is the last major tour he ever does. If that’s the case, he left a solid marker of his impressive 12-night invasion of the world’s most famous arena (Madison Square Garden’s long-time catch-phrase). Love him or hate him, you have to admit Billy Joel had a period where everything he put out turned to gold (and platinum). And regardless, 20 years ago, he was a must-see in concert, just for his energy alone. In the case of 12 Gardens Live, you can teach an old dog to repeat an old trick.