Billy Joel had a long career in music before his first commercial break with this 1973 album and its title hit single. He’d played piano as a studio sideman and recorded with several rock groups, including the Hassles and Attila, before settling into the singer-songwriter style that began with 1971’s Cold Spring Harbor. With his solo debut having stiffed commercially, and label problems keeping him from recording a follow-up, he relocated to Los Angeles where he spent six months playing as a lounge pianist, writing new material a eventually returning to touring. Signing with Columbia, he released this sophomore album in November and cracked the Top 40 by the following Spring – more than five months after the records were released. The single rose to #25, but it would be three more years until Joel achieved massive acclaim with 1977’s The Stranger.
The introspection of Cold Spring Harbor was mostly replaced on his second album with lightly- and wholly-fictional character sketches. The album’s love song, “You’re My Home” (written as a Valentine’s Day gift for Joel’s first wife) is also its most personal, though the title song is clearly drawn from Joel’s tenure as a lounge singer. Narratives of travel and distance, as well as the line “too many people got a hold of me” (from “Worse Comes to Worst”), speak to the touring and travail of his early solo years. The album’s sound was heavily influenced by California’s early-70s canyon-country scene, mixing West Coast twang with Joel’s East Coast bravura. The epic “Captain Jack” turned out to be the cure for that early turmoil, as a live recording from a 1972 radio broadcast became the turntable hit that sparked Columbia Records’ interest.
The Legacy edition of Piano Man augments a remastered edition of the original album on disc one with a newly commissioned mix (from the 16-track master) of the 1972 radio concert that yielded the pivotal live recording. Recorded live in April, 1972 at Sigma Sound Studios, the concert was broadcast on Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM. The audience was made up primarily of contest winners and the set list included six songs from Cold Spring Harbor, three that would be recorded later in the year for Piano Man, and three rarities from Joel’s early songwriting catalog (“Long, Long Time,” “Josephine” and “Rosalinda”). Joel is commanding at both his piano and microphone throughout the show, and his road band is soulful and razor sharp; together they deliver performances with more musical life than the studio versions of Joel’s first two albums.
As Jonathan Takiff point out, Joel captivated a Philadelphia audience who knew relatively little about him, getting them to respond to songs they were hearing for the first time, rather than hits they’d come to hear. Joel showed himself to be a formidable singer-songwriter and a magnetic showman whose patter (including an impromptu station ID) keeps both the studio and radio audiences hooked. Those with bootleg version of the concert will find a few changes have been made, most notably drummer Rhys Clark’s flub on “Captain Jack” has been excised. Those weaned on the original tape may take exception, but most listeners won’t notice. The two-disc set is housed in a tri-fold digipack with a 24-page booklet filled with detailed liner notes and photos. The original single edit of “Piano Man” would have made a nice bonus, but that’s a nit; fans who didn’t have the opportunity to see Joel perform in the early ‘70s owe it to themselves to hear this seminal 1972 concert. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]