The Second Disc

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Review: Billy Joel, “Live at Shea Stadium” and “Last Play at Shea”

with 17 comments

One of the biggest pitfalls as a music writer is reading something – usually a review – that spells out your thoughts so well that you have no idea where to go with your own piece. Popdose editor-in-chief Jeff Giles did that alarmingly well with his scathing assessment of Billy Joel’s Live at Shea Stadium: The Concert (Columbia/Legacy 88697 85424-2, 2011), calling it “pungently shitty, the nadir of a relatively distinguished career, and the type of release that justifies the awful music business tradition of referring to albums as ‘product.’”

Now, it’s not for me to say how right he is – Giles has been a Joel fan far longer than I have – but I tend to agree with him, to an extent. Live at Shea Stadium is far closer to the relatively toothless Концерт, taken from the Piano Man’s 1987 tour of the Soviet Union, than the essential Songs in the Attic (1981) or the surprisingly fiery 12 Gardens Live (2006). But I tend to think that’s the point; Billy Joel essentially has nothing left to prove, and thus has no reason to let it all hang out on tour. And yet, that’s precisely what he did five years ago, in a series of concerts to promote a box set.

Maybe my opinion is influenced by personal perspective – I was present at the twelfth Madison Square Garden show in the winter of 2006, and saw Joel spin through some of my personal favorite deep cuts – but I was not present for the Shea shows on July 16 and 18, 2008. (I know several who were, though, including our own Joe Marchese.) 12 Gardens Live was a tacit admission of age, what with Joel transposing nearly every song down a key, but both the selection and the delivery of those tunes was almost an atonement for not releasing a pop record since the early ’90s, for falling back on his haunches in a miasma of Elton John tours, classical records, Broadway shows and drunk driving.

And yet, here we are years later, on the eve of another planned catalogue expansion, and I can’t help but bite a nail or two in nervous anticipation knowing that Live at Shea Stadium isn’t a reaffirmation of Joel’s sterling, late-period live reputation but a document, a victory lap meant to appease casual fans and concert attendees. The set is heavy on both hits and lesser-known sides – “Piano Man,” “She’s Always a Woman,” “Keeping the Faith” and “The River of Dreams” sit alongside “Zanzibar,” “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” and “Summer, Highland Falls” – and stuffed to the gills with guests (Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Paul McCartney, John Mayer and Steven Tyler chief among them); on those criteria alone, it should be a pretty decent set.

But it’s not, and Joel himself is to blame. His vocal performance is lazy to the point of insult – he seems to be mocking Bennett on “New York State of Mind” and he sneers “Get a pre-nup!” to a man who proposes to his girlfriend during “She’s Always a Woman” – and he seems to have checked himself out of the show by the end of Disc 2. “Piano Man” is largely carried by the audience, and – in what may be the most egregious error on the set – Joel and McCartney sing different lyrics at one point while harmonizing on “Let It Be.” And that’s just what you hear on the two CDs; watching the DVD is perhaps even more painful, with Joel looking tired and bloated. (In fairness, he has since had double-hip replacement surgery and looks a little better.)

While Live at Shea Stadium may not be the pre-reissue burst of excitement we’ve been waiting for (and indeed, no forthcoming product is teased inside this package), the separately released documentary covering the same event, The Last Play at Shea (Lionsgate 29584, 2011) does a pretty good job of filling that void. The secret to its success is the film’s downplaying of the performance itself, focusing instead on Billy’s career and the evolution of Shea. It’s shockingly easy to draw the parallels between Joel and the New York Mets, but the appeal for music fans is a rare look at the beginning of his career, a topic too rarely explored in any medium. The Shea plot threads are compelling even to non-sports fans (like myself); one of the neater anecdotes revolves around a groundskeeper who worked on both Joel’s shows as well as the historic performance by The Beatles at the same venue in 1965.

We still don’t know what’s going to appear on the forthcoming Billy Joel reissues, but I’m not as hostile to the probability of vintage live shows as I once was, if only to wash the taste of Live at Shea Stadium from my palate. I’m not sorry it exists – it’s certainly a worthy souvenir for people who were there, and it’s probably the last nail in the coffin of the idea of Joel as late-period sad sack – but it’s not something I think I’m going to keep  coming back to when it comes to the Piano Man live.

Written by Mike Duquette

March 7, 2011 at 13:20

Posted in Billy Joel, DVD, Reviews

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17 Responses

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  1. Wish they would put out something vintage from Billy on DVD, such as Live in Long Island . Its sad to see a former great issue stuff like this.

    mike

    March 7, 2011 at 16:13

    • I *love* the Live From Long Island concert. I used to watch it constantly on HBO as a kid, and I still have at on VHS (even though I have nothing to play it on anymore). I would definitely buy an official release of it on DVD.

      I’d also like to finally see the London ’84 concert, which was televised live on the BBC, released. In spite of it airing in several countries, it never aired in the States. The most we got over here was the “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” video, taken from the same show.

      Really, instead of cranking out more live albums from recent years, years in which Billy hasn’t written any new songs and is clearly coasting on his old hits and reputation, I don’t understand why Sony hasn’t opened up the vaults and released vintage old shows on CD. There’s plenty of great choices out there (I know, because I’ve heard my share of bootlegs).

      Of course, I wonder why the same thing hasn’t happened for Springsteen either… Even Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” hasn’t exactly been cranking the shows out at a timely pace.

      Billy will always be one of the all-time greats for me. Right up there with the Beatles, Stones, and the aforementioned Bruce and Bob. I’ll take Billy over Elton any day. I always thought the guy had a late-career comeback, ala Dylan or Cash, in him. Sad to say it’s probably not going to happen.

      Shaun

      March 7, 2011 at 21:28

      • I agree about Live From Long Island. I have no clue why that hasn’t been released on DVD…perhaps even an extended version with moresongs from the show. It’s better leve representation of anything he’s done this side of ‘Songs In The Attic”. There’s got to be a good reason for he and Sony not to release this.

        You mentioned Springsteen. I think Springsteen has done an excellent job as of late opening the vaults. We have the BTR boxet from a few years ago that included the great 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show DVD and this year we got the ‘Darkness..” boxset – the boxset to end all boxsets! With, among other wonderful things, an absolutely scintillating live DVD from Houston 78. His past three tours have rivaled any prevous tours he’s done (you can’t say that about Joel) and we got a DVD from the Rising tour (Barcelona) and a Working On A Dream show on DVD (Hyde Park). I think Bruce has done just fine in regards to opening the vaults for his fans and I think more is on the way.
        And Dylan has done the same thing with his wonderful Bootleg Series. We’ve been getting a release every other year it seems from his vaults. The difference with Joel is he just doesn’t have as much stuff in the vaults to release as those other two artists. Their unreleased catalog and recorded live shows from the past probably dwarfs Joel’s. Billy had a great opportunity to release a vintage show on DVD with the release of My Lives…and what did we get? That boring a$$ show from the ROD tour that was heavily replayed on the Disney show years back. Yawn. No Thanks.

        TL

        March 11, 2011 at 14:08

      • I have to disagree, at least somewhat, TL… Although Bruce’s new “Darkness” box is pretty cool (or so I imagine… I’m waiting a year or two for the price to drop, as they always do) given how many bootlegs of vintage Springsteen shows are out there I don’t think Bruce and Sony have done nearly enough to open the vaults. Bruce could easily pull a Grateful Dead and do a “Dick’s Picks” or “Road Trips” series of releases. His fans would be all over that.

        He has done a number of DVD releases in recent years. But the Barcelona show was subpar (and the sound on the DVD was lousy). I haven’t seen the Hyde Park show. The Hammersmith show is great, and I’ll have to wait to see Houston ’78. But, as far as audio releases go, all we’ve gotten in Hammersmith ’75.

        Dylan, as I said, has taken his time with The Bootleg Series. It’s been even longer since we got any live shows in that series. Lots of classic shows, and different eras, that haven’t been touched upon. I’m actually kind of tired of the studio outtakes. I like the Witmark Demos in places, but I don’t find myself listening to it all in one shot.

        As for Billy, there’s more out there than you might realize. In bootleg form, there’s stuff going as far back as 1972: The Mar Y Sol festival and the WMMR performance that got him his recording contract with Columbia are two examples.

        From there, there’s stuff from every tour/era of his career. Radio broadcasts, stuff that’s out there in bootleg form (varying sound quality), unreleased concert videos/films, etc. I’m not saying everything needs to be released, but there’s good stuff out there.

        At the very least, classic artists with strong followings should make more things available as downloads. Put them on the artist’s official site, or labels like Sony could open an online store, and offer the shows at reasonable prices. Offer both mp3s and lossless (such as FLAC) formats. I’d be very supportive of something like that.

        Shaun

        March 12, 2011 at 21:09

      • Oh yeah… My Lives. Yep, that show from Germany, on the RoD tour, wasn’t his best. That’s why it stayed unreleased for a long time, aside from the Disney Channel broadcast (back when Disney did that sort of thing).

        That was the final night of that leg of the tour (a bootleg CD of it was even called “The Final Night”) and he’d been on the road for nearly a year at that point. It was also, apparently, ridiculously hot in the venue that night. On the CD (complete show), Billy asks the crowd if they have “any air conditioning here?” The crowd answers as a resounding “NO!”

        I don’t want to make too many excuses for the guy, but I’d guess he was exhausted at that point and ready for a break. It’s not a terrible show by any strech, but it’s definitely not as good as most of the shows I’ve been to… Let alone stuff like Live From Long Island, London ’84, the Russian shows (’87), or Yankee Stadium (’90).

        Had I compiled My Lives, I’d have changed the track listing AND I’d have negotiated a deal with the BBC to include the London ’84 show.

        Shaun

        March 12, 2011 at 21:17

      • From what I have seen on YouTube from Live from Shea, I don’t think it’s been too bad. (I reckon I have watched Captain Jack about 25-30 times alone). People say he is looking lazy and bloated, you have to remember he is over 60 and he isn’t getting any younger. I think it’s a good release, I don’t care if it’s not new material. I’m always happy when artists I love release new live stuff, I can watch it over and over. Seen him twice live and thought he put on a great show.

        You shouldn’t wait for Darkness to drop in price. It’s well worth the money. The recreation of Darkness at Asbury Park is all about the music. So much, power, energy, enthusiasm and passion, all in front of no audience.

        In regards to Springsteen, the guy who I think is God. His releases are epic. Every tour he releases a DVD (the only one we have missed out on is Devils & Dust Tour). The BToR Box Set was great, and I reckon the Darkness one is even better. I haven’t heard anything about a River boxset being released but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. The Live In Barcelona DVD is great, it’s full of energy, power, and above all, passion.

        The Hyde Park DVD is also a good release, spanning at nearly three hours it is fucking amazing. From the get go he owns that stage. Having said that though they should have released the stand at Giants Stadium where he played Wild, Innocent & E-Street Shuffle, BToR, Darkness, The River & BITUSA in entirety. They would have made an absolute killing.

        Iain

        March 15, 2011 at 07:20

  2. Thanks for linking to the 2002 story about Joel, I never realized he was like that. I wonder what’s changed in 9 years.

    AudioDile

    March 7, 2011 at 16:24

    • Interesting article… And pretty depressing. I keep thinking Billy’s had as charmed a life as anyone, and yet he’s probably a really unhappy guy.

      I think I might pass on the Shea CD/DVD, but I will probably his biography that’s coming out soon. I’m curious to see how much he’ll open up about his life, or if the sense of humor that I’ve always liked about him is still inside him. Somewhere.

      Oh, and f*** you Robert Christgau. Billy IS one of the greats. He, and his songs, be remembered long after you will. Not that all that many people know, or care, who Christgau is anyhow. No one cares what the critics think.

      Shaun

      March 7, 2011 at 21:46

  3. This is just sad to hear about… I was on the fence about buying the CD, given that I have all of the other live albums Billy’s offered up and that the Shea discs are just a rehash of the same songs, GREAT songs but still the same songs, over and over again.

    12 Gardens is a pretty solid live collection, and it helps that it was culled from shows where Billy at least tried to challenge himself by playing more obscurities from his deep, far too underappreciated, catalogue.

    I’d really hoped that it was start of a “comeback” for Billy. Steve Lillywhite produced it, and I couldn’t understand why a heavy hitter like Lillywhite was brought in for a live album if it wasn’t the start of something more. Oh well.

    KOHUEPT isn’t a bad live album at all. It just needed to be longer, perhaps a complete show from the Russian tour in ’87. It’s flawed, but it’s got a lot of energy. You can hear the exhaustion in Billy’s voice late on the disc, proof positive that Billy was playing and singing his heart out on those Russian shows (if you can find the two concert films from the tour, they’re fantastic).

    Songs in the Attic remains Billy’s best live album overall. One great song after another, every performance a killer. I’d always hoped that an “Attic 2” would happen, focusing on the obscurities from Billy’s later years. I guess 12 Gardens, while not the same thing, is as close as we’ll get.

    I’ve seen Billy live 9 times, so I know what great concerts he used to give. Back when he was still motivated and loved making music. All the more frustrating that the live albums have been so hit and miss, and that Shea, apparently, is lackluster as I feared.

    Shaun

    March 7, 2011 at 21:18

  4. My last Billy Joel concert (of around 6) was in 1999. Glad I left well enough alone.

    RoyalScam

    March 8, 2011 at 16:52

    • That same tour that 12 Gardens was culled from (around 2006 or so?) Billy seemed to be on a roll again… He was mixing up the setlists and playing a lot of obscurities. Not just the usual hits.

      “Root Beer Rag,” “Zanzibar,” “Until the Night,” “Sleeping With the Television On,” “Laura,” and “The Great Wall of China” were among the (awesome) songs that were brought out of retirement on that tour. The show I was great!

      Since then, however, I think he’s fallen back on bad habits. He hasn’t written anything new in almost two decades, and he apparently doesn’t care to create anymore. That’s his right, of course, but it’s shame anyhow. I bet the shows at Shea were fun if you were there, but it sounds like this CD is just a cash grab.

      I might Netflix the DVD or Blu-Ray just to see it once, but I’m not buying anything. I’ll wait for Billy’s book, and possibly some of the reissues, instead.

      Shaun

      March 8, 2011 at 20:20

  5. I’ll wait for the book too. He hasn’t done anything to peak my interest much in well over 15 years – the Face To Face tours were interesting at first but soon became repetitive and the My Lives boxset really peaked my interest but ultimately became a let down, the 2006 tours strted out exciting but soon regressed into predictable shows and I could care less about his classical period (if you can call one album a period LOL). That pretty much sums up the last 15+ years of his career minus all the rehashed back catalog stuff and uninteresting shows he’s done. The book is the only thing that may give me a surprise or two…but I’m not counting on it. We’ll see.

    TL

    March 11, 2011 at 15:11

    • I don’t know how grand the classical aspirations really were. He never seemed terribly fervent about it. More of a whim. It sold well for a classical release, but if that’s all he’s composed I don’t think he was exactly serious about it. I haven’t listened to it in awhile, but I’ve used it as pleasant background music in the past. I like it fine, but then I don’t claim to know anything about judging classical.

      Shaun

      March 12, 2011 at 21:20

      • Last thing, it’s kind of strange that all this time that he hasn’t released but two pop/rock songs in 18 years (All My Lives and Christmas In Fallujah)and all we’ve heard from him is that he’s only writing instrumental and classical music. That’s all he’s interested in and all his heart is into now he tells us….but where is it? All this time and we have one album from like ten years ago? Not that I care about his stuff outside of pop/rock. I have the F&D cd but never once got all the way through it. Are you telling me no one has offered to let him…..Blly Joel!!… score a movie soundtrack or what have you. I mean, he may have written the musical equivalent of War And Peace but if there’s no evidence of it who’s to believe he’s done any writing in the past 18 years? Very strange.

        TL

        March 13, 2011 at 18:09

  6. I definitely would love too see those early Joel performnaces released Shaun but I just don’t see it happening. No, the Voyage On The ROD DVD from My Lives isn’t terrible – just a very pedestrian performance and so disappointing considering what could have been released like LFLI or even the Houston 79 bootleg could have been touched up the way they did Springsteen’s Houston Darkness show (the inhouse boot they call it) which I highly.
    As for Bruce, I have absolutely no cmplaints about the last 10+ years of his career -what he’s released or what not. And keep in mind they’re already talking about a 25th anniv. “River” release and there’s no way they’ll leave BUSA out in that regard. So there’s is going to be more from the archives from him. I’m not worried about that.
    I’d love to see some of Dylan’s later era shows (last 10 to 15 years) get some treatment or how about the Christian era stuff? Some of those shows were pretty pretty good.

    TL

    March 12, 2011 at 23:57

    • Interesting about the Bruce reissue plans… I don’t know how bad I need to buy The River again, although it could stand to be remastered. A 35th (?) anniversary box might be worth it if there’s good bonus stuff included. I just never felt like that album was as good as BTR or Darkness. Then again, I’m not a total Bruce hardcore either. I think his best work is awesome, but I haven’t cared for much he’s done since Tunnel of Love, aside from the wonderful Seeger Sessions release. I did see him on tour a couple years back though (the BTR album live!), and the shows are still great.

      Funny thing though… Something similar could happen with Billy’s catalogue. Details on the forthcoming reissues have been few, and I doubt we’ll see box sets for all the albums, but maybe we’ll get a few treats. I have high hopes for the Legacy Edition reissue of Piano Man. We’ll see!

      Shaun

      March 13, 2011 at 10:03

  7. Went and picked up Live At Shea today, not sure what you were watching but I reckon it’s great. He might look old, but he still puts on a great show.

    I think those who don’t plan on getting it should reconsider!

    Iain

    March 15, 2011 at 21:20


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