12 Gardens Live
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2006, Volume 13, #7
Written by John Metzger
Over the years, Billy Joel has developed such a natural and easy going stage presence that he is capable of making large arenas feel warm and intimate. Therefore, the notion of his being able to construct a live album that is as compelling as his concerts isnít nearly as strange as it might, at first, appear to be. After all, his 1981 endeavor Songs in the Attic remains a wholly endearing and wonderfully successful overview of his early work. On the other hand, the material on both Kohuept (Live in Leningrad) and 2000 Years: The Millennium Concert often was so perfunctorily delivered that it sounded as if Joel slowly was running out of steam. Considering that he not only has had his share of substance abuse problems but also that he hasnít released a new album of pop-oriented fare in more than a decade, it would be easy to assume that he simply had relegated himself to being little more than a safe but unremarkable oldies act.
Consequently, Joelís latest effort 12 Gardens Live comes as pleasant surprise, and although it boasts no new compositions, it effectively makes the case that he still is very much alive and kicking. Culling 32 tracks from a lengthy string of shows that were held in early 2006 at New York Cityís Madison Square Garden, the set fuses many of the requisite hits and staples from his back catalog with a handful of less familiar selections. Drawing energy from the crowd, Joel pushes his up-tempo material along by lacing it with playful piano runs and feistily accentuating his lyrics, while the ballads all contain equal parts grace, soul, and beauty. Despite the presence of an eight-piece backing band that lends a symphonic air to at least some of the songs, thereís also a ragged sense of unadulterated rock ínĎ roll energy that permeates his performance, thus providing more urgency than he has shown in years.
Given how frequently Joel has delivered his best known tunes, many of which are now over two decades old ó Moviní Out (Anthonyís Song), My Life, Only the Good Die Young, and You May Be Right, for example ó itís refreshing to hear them fully reinvigorated. In a similar fashion, he reshapes other songs ó fitting Zanzibar with a heady jazz-imbued jam; invoking Jerry Lee Lewis on The River of Dreams and Little Richard on a fiery rendition of A Room of Our Own; enveloping Keeping the Faith in a spry, reggae-tinged groove; and tucking bits of The Beatles into just about every other nook and cranny imaginable. From a rousing romp through the opening Angry Young Man to the triumphant refrains of the concluding Itís Still Rock & Roll to Me, itís apparent that he has returned from a period of rest and rehabilitation and made a determined effort to recommit to his art. Although 12 Gardens Live isnít likely to supplant Songs in the Attic as Joelís definitive concert album, it does make for a remarkably sturdy companion piece ó which isnít bad for a guy who supposedly has retired from the realm of pop music. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box