On Record Store Day this year Columbia Legacy released an album for which I had high hopes. Billy Joel Live at Carnegie Hall 1977 is a fine concert and it pretty much sounds like the version included in the 30th Anniversary boxed set (from 2008) celebrating Billy's classic breakthrough smash hit album, The Stranger. And there-in lies the problem...
Don't get me wrong, the basic album sounds pretty nice (dead-quiet-well-centered-standard-weight-black-vinyl and all that). The vinyl does sound quite a bit bigger than the CD, especially Liberty DeVito's propulsive drumming, with nice cymbal presence and his ever-wonderful rolling tom-tom fills. You can turn up the volume on this one without things falling apart and it getting painful to listen to. I have my little nits about a slight digital flavored edginess I'm feeling on this vinyl pressing, but that is pure speculation on my part so I won't bore you with that.
No, my bigger gripe is more with choices made in the actual mix which alway left something to be desired (again, for me, at least... your experience may vary, as they say....). You see, an orchestra was employed to perform with Billy on those Carnegie Hall shows and on the recording you can barely hear them! Listen closely to tracks like "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" and there are lovely Phil Spector-inspired orchestral parts all but buried there in the mix - at least I suspect they are lovely! The orchestra would probably make a song like "New York State Of Mind" glow that much further than it already does...
In a perfect world, those strings should be punctuating out of the mix more so the listener can hear them. Yet, there are odd moments where a lone trumpet or other instrument blares out at the listener; while listening to this album I sometimes almost wonder if this was a nice soundboard monitor mix made on-the-fly back in the day vs. a more thoughtful mix made in a proper studio off the multitrack master tapes.
However, in reality Billy Joel Live at Carnegie Hall 1977 was recorded via The Record Plant's remote truck and -- alas -- the hype sticker on cover says the album was mixed from the multi-tracks by Phil Ramone and Frank Filipetti in 2007. So, I thus have to assume the producers had reasons for their mix choices. Maybe there was too much "bleed through" of instruments on the orchestra's microphones? Maybe there were timing and tuning issues? I dunno. I feel like I'm whining now... I guess in these days of digital wizardry, I would have hoped something could have been done to bring out those details more which would have made this release that much more unique.
But with longtime producer Phil Ramone's passing in the interim since its original release (RIP), perhaps that detail fell through the cracks amidst other more important issues.
The underlying performances remain pretty knocked out. It is great hearing music from Billy's then current album Turnstiles getting the focus on this show while the band debuts material from the then-yet-to-be-released album The Stranger. Its funny hearing the relatively cordial response to "Just The Way You Are" -- a song which went on to become Billy's first really massive hit, and an instant pop standard, while songs like "Say Goodbye To Hollywood" receive the rousing crowd applause (justifiably, in my humble opinion).
You can find the whole Carnegie Hall concert album in "Volume 2" of the "legacy edition" of The Stranger on Tidal (click here), streaming in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, CD quality.
I'm glad that Billy Joel's live concert recording archives are starting to open up. I'd love to hear other shows from 1977 which were broadcast on radio and would make interesting bookends to this concert. In May of that year he delivered a great show at C.W. Post / Long Island University (which you can hear up on YouTube by clicking here) and then his triumphant December holiday homecoming concert at Nassau Coliseum was broadcast as well.
If memory serves me that latter show was broadcast in NYC on WNEW-FM (and probably on WLIR-FM in Long Island); I played a cassette of that performance pretty endlessly for years as at the time there weren't any available live Billy Joel recordings until Songs From The Attic in 1981. That Nassau Coliseum concert remains a personal favorite, with the band finding its groove on the new material from The Stranger (released in September that year) and Billy clearly reveling in his career ascension moment (click here for that show I found on a fan site, albeit in seriously compressed form so its pretty wonky sounding even on computer speakers).
Together, these shows give you a great snapshot of an artist who had been reaching for the golden ring for 10 years and who grabbed it boldly when he got that chance. 1977 was that time for Billy Joel and forty plus years on it remains a special point in his career to celebrate!