If the United States gave out knighthoods to musicians, Billy Joel would certainly be a Sir. He is, essentially, the American Elton John. In 1994 these two piano men even embarked on a hugely successful series of “Face-to-Face” tours together, and their music continues to share an enduring worldwide appeal that few artists have matched. I have always been more of an Elton man myself— um…figuratively speaking—but the chance to watch Joel rock a packed-to-the-rafters Shea Stadium just months before it would be demolished was something I could not pass up.
I first got into Billy Joel when I was in elementary school, back when The Stranger climbed to #2 on the U.S. album charts, and hit songs like “Just The Way You Are,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Only The Good Die Young” and “She’s Always A Woman” were just about all you heard on the radio. A year later, 52nd Street was even more successful, reaching the #1 spot, and spawning three more Top 40 singles. Joel retired from recording pop music in 1993, but up to that point he had already scored an incredible 33 Top 40 hits, 23 Grammy nominations (and 6 wins), and has sold over 150 million records worldwide.
Live At Shea Stadium was filmed over two nights—July 16 and July 18, 2008—before a combined crowd of about 110,000 fans, marking the last two shows ever played at the historic stadium before it was torn down in 2009. The video begins with some marvelous overhead shots of the stadium and its capacity crowd, which brilliantly capture the enormity and excitement of this event, leaving no doubt that this will be one of the most impressive looking Blu-ray concerts you might ever see.
Joel wisely kicks off the show with a spirited performance of “Prelude/Angry Young Man,” from his Turnstiles album of 1976, and the energy in the place is amazing. “My Life” keeps the electricity flowing a little longer before Joel slows it down a bit with one of his best early ballads, “Summer, Highland Falls,” also from Turnstiles. This would be the favored album of the first half of the set, with fours of its songs played, including the classic “New York State Of Mind,” and the deeper cut, “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway).”
Joel is one of the few artists who have the luxury of being able to leave out over a dozen Top-20 hits from his setlist and still be able to fill a two-hour show with smash hits and fan favorites. Sure, I was wondering where in the hell “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Big Shot” were, but fans of his ’80s mega-hits like “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me,” “Tell Her About It,” and “Uptown Girl” could be disappointed as well that so many of those songs were overlooked. I certainly wasn’t, however. The setlist does feature at least one song from every Joel studio album, the only exception being 1974′s Streetlife Serenade.
As the concert wears on, though, it becomes ever more apparent just how tired and unengaged Joel seems, especially when compared to other recent performances, such as his 12 Gardens Live concerts of 2006. He half-asses his way through “New York State Of Mind” with Tony Bennett, mostly just doing a cheesy lounge-singer imitation. Around the midway point, Joel invites Garth Brooks out to perform “Shameless,” which the country music legend had turned into his own hit back in 1991. To follow, Joel brings out John Mayer, who lends some of his tasty blues-guitar licks to “This Is The Time.” For the most part Joel seems to come alive during such guest performances, as if playing his own songs in front of a packed stadium of 55,000 adoring fans is just too “been there, done that” for him to get overly inspired.
Joel closes out the show with three of his best songs, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” and “Only The Good Die Young,” from The Stranger, and a rousing “Piano Man, which is carried more by the enthusiastic audience than by Joel himself. Oh, and Paul McCartney plays a couple of Beatles’ tracks, too. Yeah, Paul hit a 450-foot home run into the center field seats with “I Saw Her Standing There,” while playing his Hofner bass guitar and invoking memories of The Beatles’ historic 1965 concert. For the final song of the night Joel graciously turns over his piano seat to Sir Paul while he sings background vocals on “Let It Be.”
I have read a few scalding reviews of Joel’s performance at these shows, with one longtime fan and reviewer going as far as to call it “pungently shitty,” and although I can certainly identify with some of the “laziness” critiques, I still find this Blu-ray disc to be a very enjoyable overall. Sure, if you have already seen any of Joel’s better performances of the last decade, then this one might be a letdown for you. But at almost 60 years of age at the time and in need of double-hip-replacement surgery (which he underwent in 2010), Joel is far removed from his performing prime.
Also included are a few other guest appearances by Steven Tyler who sings the Aerosmith classic, “Walk This Way,” The Who’s Roger Daltrey, who does “My Generation,” and John Mellencamp, who plays “Pink Houses.” For reasons that escape me, these performances are relegated to the bonus-features section instead of in the main setlist where they belong.
As I already hinted at earlier, this is one of the most vibrant and sharpest looking Blu-ray concerts I have ever seen. The clarity and detail are remarkable in both the extreme close-ups and the longer shots of the entire stadium. The Blu-ray version includes lossless LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 surround audio tracks as well as a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. I’ve been surprised to see so many extremely negative reviews concerning the audio mixes on this Blu-ray disc, which leads me to believe that there must have been a production problem with some of the discs. I found the two LPCM mixes to be excellent overall, although the bass could have been mixed a bit higher. My subwoofer was barely utilized. The LPCM 5.1 surround mix was the clear winner here, with the Dolby 5.1 mix sounding slightly weaker.
The camera work throughout this concert is brilliant. You get a variety of great angles, including all of those incredible helicopter (or blimp?) shots from above the stadium, which really capture the energy and scale of this concert. The only bonus features are the three aforementioned special-guest performances.
Live At Shea Stadium is not so much Billy Joel’s finest hour as it is a momentous occasion, brilliantly captured on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s certainly worth checking out.
01. Prelude/Angry Young Man
02. My Life
03. Summer, Highland Falls
04. Everybody Loves You Now
06. New York State Of Mind (with Tony Bennett)
08. The Ballad Of Billy The Kid
09. She’s Always A Woman
10. Goodnight Saigon
11. Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)
12. Shameless (with Garth Brooks)
13. This Is The Time (with John Mayer)
14. Keeping The Faith
15. Captain Jack
16. Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)
17. The River Of Dreams/A Hard Day’s Night
18. We Didn’t Start The Fire
19. You May Be Right
20. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
21. Only The Good Die Young
22. I Saw Her Standing There (with Paul McCartney)
23. Take Me Out To The Ballgame
24. Piano Man
25. Let It Be (with Paul McCartney)
Performance – 7/10
Production – 9/10