There’s something really fascinating about listening to Piano Man, Billy Joel’s second album (Cold Spring Harbor was his first), with the kind of hindsight listeners didn’t have when the album first hit shelves back in 1973. Who could have known then that the title track would become the type of song that inspires complete bafflement when you encounter someone who’s not familiar with it? Or that this affable, kitschy Bronx boy would end up an indelible pillar of adult contemporary radio for generations to come? I ask these questions because Piano Man, like Cold Spring Harbor before it, is mostly devoid of the hit single material that populates Joel’s later albums. Much like his contemporary and erstwhile inspiration Elton John, Joel took a couple of albums to pick up steam. Once he did, of course, he started releasing albums like Turnstiles and the nearly flawless The Stranger. But here, you can still hear him working things out, and while the results are less electric than the stuff he was churning out in the late ’70s, it’s hard not to take a certain pleasure in hearing an artist come into his own.
If you’re not familiar with the non-single material on Piano Man, you’ll probably be surprised at the distinctly Western flair that permeates the songs, which have titles like “Travelin’ Prayer”, “Stop in Nevada”, and (most tellingly) “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”. The country vocabulary lends itself rather well to Joel’s usual peppy piano-rock. “Travelin’ Prayer” evokes a cross-country train ride with its skittering snares, while “Nevada” and “Billy the Kid” are boilerplate Billy Joel bombast with pedal-steel accents. The most down-homey of the offerings here is probably “You’re My Home”, a sentimental ballad full of finger-picked guitars and treacly lines like, “Well, I never had a place that I could call my very own / But that’s all right, my love, ’cause you’re my home”.
An obvious touchstone for the twangy sound of Piano Man is Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, but in the liner notes, Joel mentions other influences: Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. It’s kind of a far cry from Joel’s mid-to-late oeuvre, which reads increasingly like a love letter to the city of New York. The only indication of Joel’s Bronx roots here is his classic “Captain Jack”, which closes out the set with a dose of his most scathing cynicism – and, for the most part, underscores the general slightness of the album that preceded it. There are flashes of the frenetic energy and lyrical ingenuity that would later make Joel the third best-selling solo artist of all time in the US, but for the most part, Piano Man is a pretty middling rock album.
What makes this package worth picking up is the second disc: an hour-long live set performed by a 22-year-old Joel at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia for WMMR. Recorded over a year before the release of Piano Man, the intimate concert has Joel trotting out a handful of songs from Cold Spring Harbor, most notably “She’s Got a Way” (which remains one of his simplest and best songs), and most of Piano Man. He’s a game master of ceremonies, too, filling in the gaps between songs with running commentary and wry observations. Most of the songs from Piano Man sound at least as good as their album counterparts, which may have something to do with the fact that they’re being performed in a sound studio. What makes this set a real gem, though, is the youthful verve you can hear in his voice. Every note rings clear and true and strangely innocent, and you can scarcely imagine this man going on to spit lyrical venom like “Big Shot”. Even “Captain Jack” sounds more elegiac and regretful than cynical.
Both discs of this reissue of Piano Man show the kernels of many traits that would go on to define Billy Joel, particularly his indomitable flair for the theatrical, whether it be in theme, music, or lyrics. It’s the sound of an artist who hasn’t quite made it yet but is on the verge of figuring it all out, which can often be the most exciting period in an artist’s career.