listening booth: billy joel, “12 gardens live”

Written by Music


Billy Joel – 12 Gardens Live (2006)
purchase this album (Amazon)


Billy Joel - 12 Gardens Live

For as long as people have been able to buy music, old music-loving farts have sat around griping about how “it used to be about the music” and whatever the kids happen to be listening to is just a bunch of soulless crap. The truth is, there’s never been a music business that wasn’t about the “business” at least as much as the “music.” The entire enterprise, from the beginning, was founded on seemingly conflicting urges: To enrich the human soul, and to screw people out of as much money as possible.

This art-commerce nexus is on full display within 12 Gardens Live, the latest in a series of cash grabs meant to extend Billy Joel’s waning relevance as a contemporary artist. Whether it’s Sony or Joel himself that’s to blame for the continual repackaging of his material is beside the point; these releases may be artistically offensive, but from a business standpoint, they make nothing but sense. You may have already heard most of these songs a hundred thousand times, but in trying to sell them to you again, the label’s just doing its job. Your job is to decide whether or not it’s worth your hard-earned pay.

From a casual fan’s standpoint, Gardens is probably the way to go if you’re looking for a comprehensive, live Billy Joel collection — though it positively wilts next to Songs in the Attic, it’s easily superior to either of Joel’s other two live albums (especially the execrable 2000 Years), and contains the broadest cross-section of familiar hits and deep cuts.

And speaking of those deep cuts, it’s their inclusion that’ll be the main draw for the hardcore faithful. Though Gardens is definitely larded up with songs that have made their way to Joel’s previous live releases — sometimes more than once — it also includes a number of cuts rarely performed, and never officially released, live. Didn’t think you’d ever get to hear “The Night Is Still Young,” “Zanzibar,” “Laura,” “She’s Right on Time,” or “A Room of Our Own” live? You aren’t alone. If you feel a little dirty shelling out money for the privilege, you probably aren’t alone either, but credit Joel and/or Sony for giving fans at least one legitimate reason for picking up the set.

12 Gardens breaks down pretty cleanly along these lines: If the song in question was included on Songs in the Attic, the earlier version was better. If the song in question was on КОНЦЕРТ or (especially) 2000 Years, the new version is an improvement. On the former album, Joel’s band was in a state of lazy drift; on the latter, Joel himself was in no shape to tackle the songs. These days, happily, Joel seems to have regained some of the vocal range he’d lost to age and bad habits over the last decade (though, as our pal Jason is quick to point out, lowering the keys makes things a little easier), even if his current band isn’t — couldn’t possibly be — as emotionally invested in the material as the band of brothers heard on Attic.

The band’s bland proficiency has a disappointingly enervating effect on much of Gardens. Listeners who haven’t spent a lot of time with the original versions, or even Songs in the Attic, probably won’t notice or care, and to be fair, the performances aren’t totally without character; in fact, there’s a refreshing number of clams sprinkled across the set’s two discs. After the gross heaps of post-production applied to Joel’s last live set, it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear this warts ‘n all approach.

It does sound, in spots, as though Joel has lost touch with, or is bored by, the material (”Vienna” [download] and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” [download], in particular, have a distractingly campy karaoke feel), but on the other hand, “The Night Is Still Young” (download) is something like a revelation, and it’s a pleasure to hear Joel tackling the high notes on “An Innocent Man” (download) again (even if they aren’t quite as high as they used to be).

Bottom line: Pick up this set while it’s still value-priced, and you’ll be getting your money’s worth. For more than $20, though, you’re safe passing this one by.