I was a big Billy Joel fan growing up, oblivious to the fact that he was one the least cool “rock stars” in all of music. He wrote great pop songs, with lyrics that usually told a complete story. He was nearly unparalleled in the catchy hook department. Though never one of rock’s greatest voices, in his prime his vocals were expressive and varied. And of course his piano playing has always been more exciting and inventive than much of what passes for musicianship in pop.
Like a total idiot, I went through a phase where I allowed the overall critical consensus to influence my tastes. Out went all my Billy Joel albums, including the rock solid ones like The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain. I parroted all the reviews I read that chastised Joel for writing social commentary songs that had no personal point of view. Some claimed that Joel had no right to pen songs about Vietnam (“Goodnight Saigon”), struggling fishermen (“The Downeaster Alexa”), or a great many other things, because he had never experienced them himself. Seriously, if that was an legitimate criticism there would be considerably less creative writing in general (and not just in pop music).
At some point I began thinking for myself again and reacquired a lot of Joel’s catalog. The fact is, for twenty or so years, he was one of pop’s most consistent singles artists. A good compilation of highlights (avoid the recent, skimpy single-disc The Hits) should be satisfactory for most people. The critical consensus that landed him a prominent spot in Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time (1991) was simply too harsh. It is, however, worth noting that Joel’s detractors do have some points. His attempts to actually rock out are often a bit stiff and unconvincing. Most of his albums (with a few exceptions) are loaded with filler. And he is derivative to a fault at times (Joel often sounds like many other artists, without anyone really ever sounding like Billy Joel).
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Joel simply stopped releasing new material. His final studio album of pop songs was 1993’s River of Dreams. In addition to dabbling in classical composition, he has trotted out his formidable catalog of hits on numerous tours over the years. On July 16th and 18th, 2008, he played the final concerts at New York City’s Shea Stadium. A compilation of these two historic shows has been issued on Blu-ray as, quite simply, Live at Shea Stadium. The two and a half hour show provides good evidence why the bad rap against Joel eventually melted away. He remains a very conventional, mainstream, middle of the road entertainer – but of a very high order. Though he barely moves from behind his piano, his performance is very tasteful and accomplished. His voice has seen better days, but the same can be said for any pop star his age.
The set list will leave fans with plenty to bitch about. How could it not? Like Paul McCartney and Elton John, the man simply has too many hits and fan-favorite album cuts to play them all. Besides “Keeping the Faith,” the hit-laden An Innocent Man goes ignored. I was a bit surprised to not hear “Big Shot,” “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” or “She’s Got a Way.” Any of them would’ve been far preferable to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “Shameless” (though Garth Brooks fans will be pleased with his guest vocal). John Mayer brought little to “This Is the Time” (I would’ve rather heard the higher-charting but largely forgotten “Modern Woman” represent 1986’s The Bridge).
Thankfully, Joel treated the crowd to what might be his best song, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” A brief cover of The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” is inserted midway through “River of Dreams,” a nice touch of unpredictability (unless he does that every time, in which case only hardcore fans will expect it). Tony Bennett brings a touch of class to “New York State of Mind.” And the appearance by Paul McCartney, first playing his Hofner bass while singing “I Saw Her Standing There” and later closing the program behind the piano with “Let It Be,” is an appropriately nostalgic touch. After all, it was McCartney (with The Beatles, of course) who ushered in the era of stadium rock with a historic 1965 show at Shea.
Live at Shea Stadium looks outstanding on Blu-ray in 1080i high definition. The picture is clear as a bell, whether a wide shot of the entire stadium or an close-up of Joel’s sweat-drenched face. There really is simply nothing I can criticize about the visual presentation of this concert. Though not the most colorful footage to look at, the skin tones are realistic and the frequently blue lighting design is rich.
The audio choices are uncompressed PCM 2.0, uncompressed PCM 5.1, and Dolby Digital 5.1. There has been considerable controversy about these mixes. I delayed this review to sample the audio on two separate sound systems. While it’s not the best ever concert Blu-ray I’ve heard, I didn’t hear anything especially wrong with it. I was surprised to realize I prefer the 2.0 mix the best. It had the punchiest, most rockin’ sound. I thought the uncompressed 5.1 track sounded pretty darn good though. I found the mix a bit muddy, without an abundance of definition in the low frequencies. But bass was definitely present in the mix. The upper frequencies sounded great, with clear vocals and Joel’s piano standing out nicely.
The extra material consists of three songs, each fronted by a guest star. Steven Tyler leads the band through “Walk This Way,” with Joel apparently taking a break offstage. Roger Daltry sings “My Generation” – I think I spotted Joel once, kind of dancing around in the background. And John Mellencamp, the best of these three bonus performances due to a spirited vocal, brings down the house with “Pink Houses.” Again, Joel’s participation is basically non-existant. I suppose that’s why these three songs were left out of the main presentation. They’re pretty cool to see. Talk about getting your money’s worth at a show, with all these superstar guests.
There’s a lot to like about this lengthy concert. Joel’s band is professional, with some great horn playing by Mark Rivera on saxophones and Carl Fischer on trumpet. Special note must be made of the versatile utility woman Crystal Taliefero, who provides support on a variety of instruments and backing vocals. Billy Joel fans won’t want to pass on this one.