CD/DVD Review: Billy Joel, “Live at Shea Stadium”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

I’ve had Live at Shea Stadium for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve spent them alternating between watching 30-minute chunks of the film and struggling with what to say about it. Not because I can’t decide whether it’s any good — Shea is 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” — but because Billy Joel’s music has been a huge part of the soundtrack of my life, and it’s hard to be at all objective about it.

In fact, if I’m being honest, I probably need to give Joel’s songs most of the credit for awakening me to the power and potential of rock music. It feels funny typing those words, given how self-consciously Joel often strained for rock ‘n’ roll, but if you’ve spent a lot of time with his catalog, I think you’ll understand why his pugnacious brand of jaded, self-centered pop might appeal to an eight-year-old suburban kid. I may not have understood the social commentary of “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” or have had the life experience to really appreciate the weary yearning of, say, “Until the Night,” but generally speaking, Billy Joel’s songs were mostly about a character named Billy Joel, and he could be kind of a dick. When it comes to pointing fingers and being selfish and vindictive, who knows more than a preteen?

This is a pretty reductive (and slightly unfair) summary of Joel’s work, but it’s the one he seems to favor. Look at the tracks chosen for his latest compilation, The Hits — it’s Billy in vinegar-soaked rocker mode, from the furious back-handed compliment of “Everybody Loves You Now” to tempura-light arena belters like “I Go to Extremes.” Except for a few odd reflective pauses (“New York State of Mind”), it takes a stylistically eclectic body of work and locks it into one angle and a single speed: Billy as the guy with one hand bashing the piano and the other raised to give the world the finger.

It was the perfect stance for the ’70s and ’80s, as Joel’s generation grew up against its will, barreling downhill in a snowball of addiction, neurosis, and blind self-indulgence. He started with sardonic humor and artificially inflated ennui, graduated to crushing stress and loneliness, settled uneasily into domesticity, and told some pretty good stories along the way; at their best, in three-minute increments, his songs reflected the turmoil of the Sexual Revolution and the Cold War (explicitly, albeit clumsily so, in “We Didn’t Start the Fire”).

The problem is that once he got past a certain point — and I’d put that point at the end of The Nylon Curtain — Billy Joel ceased to evolve. An Innocent Man, his most relaxed and radio-friendly album, was an unapologetic pastiche; like Paul Simon with Graceland later in the decade, it was a way of jiggering the creative floodgates by adopting a different musical pose. Joel’s last three pop albums had their moments, but it became increasingly apparent that songwriting — which never came all that easily to him in the first place — was getting harder for him. And meanwhile, his longtime band, which had always been a crucial component of his image and his sound, started to dissolve. At their worst, 1989’s Storm Front and 1993’s The River of Dreams present blandly competent musicians gathering behind rote, flavorless songwriting.

Which brings us to Live at Shea Stadium.

Joel’s two-night stand at Shea, held in 2008 to commemorate the stadium’s closing, seemed a little unusual to begin with; he’s always been more closely identified with the Yankees than Shea’s longtime occupants the Mets, after all. You could almost hear the organizers saying, “Well, at least he’s a big star from New York.” And fair enough — this had more to do with the stadium than baseball (as explored fully in the documentary Last Play at Shea, not part of this package), and it was really just about throwing a big party to say farewell to an era.

If only Joel had bothered to show up. I mean, okay, he’s there, behind the piano, in front of the band, and up on the giant video screens. But he delivers an epically half-assed performance — his keyboard work is indifferent, and his vocals are stunningly lazy. He’s either sliding around in the meter like a guy who just learned songs he doesn’t really care about, clipping his lines in weird spots, or just plain fucking around — as in “New York State of Mind,” where he adopts an insulting caricature of a lounge singer’s voice while trading lines with Tony Bennett, who should have kicked Joel’s ass, smoothed his tie, and strolled off the stage. And the notes? He sometimes hits them where it hurts. Listening to this version of “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” is as close as any of us will ever get to going clam-digging with Billy Joel.

The band doesn’t hurt anything, but it certainly doesn’t help matters either. The classic Billy Joel lineup was — or at least very much seemed like — a band of brothers. They may not have been the world’s best players, but they had a distinctive sound, and they offered a link to Joel’s middle-class past. I can’t comment on whether he had valid reasons for dismissing them; I simply don’t know. But what I can tell you is that the band he’s fronting now demonstrates no palpable connection to the material. They’re technically skilled — particularly utility infielders Mark Rivera and Crystal Taliefero, who have been playing with Joel for roughly 30 and 20 years, respectively — but they don’t throw any sparks.

But it’s Joel who sets the tone, and Joel who shoulders the blame. Watch him during Live at Shea Stadium — from the moment the show begins, he looks exhausted; dead behind the eyes, bored with the material. The only times he comes alive are when something non-musical happens — like when he quips “get a pre-nup!” to an audience member who proposes to his girlfriend — or when one of his many special guests comes out. At those moments, Joel is as close to being just another guy in the band as he’ll ever be, and it adds a little life to the songs that, no matter how fleetingly, reminds you of the dynamic live performer he used to be.

Joel was almost 60 when these performances were recorded, and the years have been unkind; it would be unfair to expect him to run around the stage like a maniac anymore. But it isn’t unfair to expect him to deliver performances that suggest he cares at all about the material. I guarantee you there’s someone in a karaoke bar, right this minute, singing Billy Joel songs more passionately than Joel does on Live at Shea Stadium.

But then again, what do you expect from a release like this? Live at Shea is Joel’s third live album in 10 years, and he hasn’t released a (non-classical) set of new material in almost twice as long. It was recorded at a pair of giant stadium shows — you know, the kind where the people on stage are tiny specks to the folks in the cheap seats, and where a roving camera can’t help catching a guy near the front row checking his phone. It’s an Event, not a communion between the artist and his audience, and this set is just a souvenir. I suspect that, for the most part, those people got what they came for (although if anyone really wanted to hear John Mayer playing guitar on “This Is the Time,” they should be punched). They got together to blow off a little steam, drink some overpriced beer, and sing along to songs they know by heart. Simple pleasures, and there’s something to be said for them, even during an exercise as empty as this. When the camera pans out and you hear a stadium full of people singing “Piano Man,” it’s hard to argue with whatever brought them together.

But it’s also hard not to resent the crass, barrel-scraping mindset behind turning the damn thing into a piece of product. And it’s impossible not to look at Joel while the whole sad mess is unfolding and wonder, “Man, what are you doing here?”

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