CD Review: Billy Joel – 12 Gardens Live


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12 gardens liveArtist: Billy Joel

Label: Sony

Release Dates:
Original: June 13, 2006
CD: June 13, 2006

Discs: 2

Aardvark’s Rating (out of 5):
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12 Gardens Live is the latest live effort by Billy Joel, one of pop rocks elder statesmen and what a great album it is. This disc brings Mr. Piano Man’s total of live official offerings to four, and to my way of thinking it is probably the most satisfying one to date.

These recordings stem from a series of 12 sold out shows at Madison Square Gardens this past spring; no small feat to be sure. In fact, the attendance record that he broke was his own, a previous 10 date stint at the self same venue. This disc could quite easily have degenerated into yet another greatest hits package as so many live albums tend to do these days. I’m happy to tell you that this temptation was avoided here to very great effect. Don’t get me wrong, the hits are here; and mighty fine versions of them they are. Smoking takes of Joel hits My Life, Big Shot and Only The Good Die Young are played with much vim and vigor.

Yet it is the deeper cuts that make the album. A stirring version of his Vietnam epic Goodnight Saigon here, live staple Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen The Lights Go Down On Broadway) there; sprinkle in a pinch of the infrequently played Vienna mix with a haunting rendition of And So It Goes and serve while still hot.

Naturally, the inclusion of personal favorites New York State of Mind, Scenes From An Italian Restaurant and Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) didn’t hurt my opinion of this disc any.  What can I tell you; previous efforts KOHUEPT (Live in Leningrad) and 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert pale in comparison. The former was to contrived; the latter to sterile.

For me this disc captures a true sense of verisimilitude: a real sense of being there.

To my ears the mix is excellent. Vocals are front and centre without over powering the instruments, exactly where you would expect to find them. Drums have presence, the piano a nice timbre and the guitars have a suitable amount of bite to them. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves here, this is Billy Joel we are talking about. Not Metallica or Voivod.  But still with all…

I’ve read some reviews that question the relative merits of the sound on this disc. To my way of thinking they are comparing those merits to the studio versions. A big no-no in my book. The sound was so much better when I went to night x of his 12 night stand. Bullshit. Songs just sound different live. Get over it. You can’t tell me that the sound at any live event could ever hope to sonically surpass a professional recording of that self same event. I’ve been to my fair share of concerts since the early 70’s and quickly learned that comparing the sound at any given concert to anything other than the sound at any other given concert is folly at best.

What sets the experience of attending a live concert apart from merely listening to the audio of that very same concert after the fact is the immediacy one gleans from actually “being there”. If you’ve never been to a rock and roll concert I couldn’t expect you to understand that of which I speak. There’s nothing quite like being packed into a dark room (for even large stadiums are nothing more than rooms on ‘roids) with hitherto fore strangers all fixed on a shared focal point while bright, rhythmically pulsating lights and music played just below the pain threshold assault your senses. And if you’ve just so happened to ingest any mind altering substances before hand… whew… as Joe Pesci said in Goodfellas… fugedaboutid…

How then could any recording of that event ever hope to match the actual experience. There are certain flaws inherent to just about any professionally captured live recording. Leave the sound too raw, capture exactly what was available to be captured at the event and you might be setting yourself up for failure. Vocals might be to low, or be to muddy. Guitars could be out of tune. Drums could be buried in the mix. One way or t’other it could add up to disaster.

On the flipside, live recordings can also be mixed to within an inch of their life. Mixed so severely that any kind of power or artist spark that a truly great live performer might imbue it with is all but gone. Over produced to the point that you may as well be listening to a re-recorded studio version of the songs. Which is a cardinal sin in my books. Keep in mind that I grew up listening to bootleg recordings of live shows by my favorite bands. Bootlegs are, by and large, the antithesis of most professional live recordings.  I’m happy to report that 12 Gardens Live preserves a more than adequate balance between a live concert sound and the type of sound that most record company types with potential dollar signs floating before their eyes almost universally insist upon.

I highly recommend this disc. Of course it doesn’t sound like the studio versions of these songs. If you want to listen to the studio versions, the tried and true comfort that intimate familiarity imbues a song with then… well, listen to the damn studio version of the songs and leave live music to those that truly appreciate it’s differences.

This recording has been called an “official” bootleg, a trend in music that owes more than just a casual nod to all those industrious folks who provided the hardcore fans with what they really wanted… more product from their favorite artists.

Like any good bootleg, songs are sometimes overlooked on the credits but are
on the disc none the less. Witness the uncredited version of “Draw The Line” which was tacked onto Aerosmith’s take on the old James Brown standard “Mother Popcorn” on their “Live! Bootleg” release. In that self same vein there are two additional uncredited tracks on “12 Gardens Live” (one on each disc). Once the final strains of “Laura” on disc one have faded out the listener is treated to a rocking version of “A Room Of Our Own”. Likewise, the emotional take on “And So It Goes” is followed up by a ruckus “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me”.

Disc One: Angry Young Man / My Life / Everybody Loves You Now / Billy The Kid / The Entertainer / Vienna / New York State of Mind / The Night is Still Young / Zanzibar / Miami 2017 / The Great Wall of China / Allentown / She’s Right on Time / Don’t Ask Me Why / Laura / A Room Of Our Own (not listed)

Disc Two: Goodnight Saigon / Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) / An Innocent Man / The Downeaster “Alexa” / Always A Woman / Keeping the Faith / River of Dreams / A Matter of Trust / We Didn’t Start the Fire / Big Shot / You May Be Right / Only The Good Die Young / Scenes From an Italian Restaurant / Piano Man / And So it Goes / It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me (not listed)

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