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Listening Report: Billy Joel’s Vinyl Collection Boxed Set – The Live Concert

Mark Smotroff digs into the crux of the set…

In part one of my listening report on the new boxed set Billy Joel: The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1 we explored the original 1970s run of albums which established him as a superstar, from Cold Spring Harbor through the live rarities collection Songs From The Attic. In case you missed that deep dive introduction, please click here to catch up…

In this portion we explore the fantastic, previously unreleased live concert from June 1975, recorded here in San Francisco at my favorite concert venue in town, The Great American Music Hall.  

For those of you who may wonder what the big deal about this concert hall is, a little perspective might be in order… 

Consider that a month later after Billy’s performance, no less than The Grateful Dead would play their only show that year, a radio broadcast — which eventually was released as One From The Vault and highly regarded as one of their best ever performances. 

I guess my underlying point here is that there is something magical about this venue. I can attest to it having seen many of my favorite artists perform there including Robert Fripp, Jeff Buckley, Betty LaVette, David Crosby, Dungen and more. And every one of these shows has been tremendous.

Old, woody and intimate, The Great American Music Hall holds less than 500 people and is just one of those special live music spaces they just don’t make any more. You can read more about it on the Wiki if  you are interested (click here).

That said, Billy sounds very comfortable on this stage, the last night of a four show run. His band is well oiled and having fun.  He previews two songs that would later appear on his first masterpiece, Turnstiles album (released the following Spring). Thus we get to experience early versions of “James” and “New York State Of Mind.”  The latter is especially tasty with a sweet sax solo at the end by Johnny Almond  (yes, of Mark-Almond fame). 

The band brings to life songs from Billy’s then current second album Streetlife Serenade including “The Mexican Connection” as well as “Roberta,” “Weekend Song” and “The Entertainer.” He also rocks “Everybody Loves You Now” from Cold Spring Harbor

It is neat hearing tunes from Piano Man live which didn’t really get performed as much later in his career once the big mega hits started happening.  So look forward to hearing sweet renditions of  “Travelin’ Prayer, “You’re My Home,” “Ain’t No Crime” and of course “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid.” 

Billy’s comfort with the audience and stage humor is evident as he banters with the crowd. And as he sometimes would do live, he pepper’s the show with comic covers. This round he pulls off a particularly great spoof of Joe Cocker’s take on “You Are So Beautiful” which was topping the charts around that time…

Beyond the performance, what gets me is the quality of this recording.  Billy Joel Live At The Great American Music Hall 1975 sounds terrific!  The vinyl pressing is excellent and very quiet which is so important in this show which has many hushed points including bits of near silence between Billy’s stage banter. 

“The Entertainer” is particularly great as the acoustic guitar sounds like it was mic’d from the front of the instrument (ie. just a bit below the sound hole), which is how they used to record them back in the day — nowadays, so many acoustic guitars are recorded in-line via built-in pick-ups on the guitars which (especially early on) could result in a kind of sterile tone. Here you can almost feel the wood of the instrument.

Even though this West Coast version of Billy’s band doesn’t have quite the same power of his later group which first came together on Turnstiles — bassist Doug Stegmeyer is the only one in this group who was in the later incarnation — they are certainly a tight ensemble.  

If I have any complaint about Billy Joel Live At The Great American Music Hall 1975, it is purely cosmetic: the cover design on this live album is not especially compelling. It is just a simple lackluster, single-pocket sleeve to hold two discs (a low budget solution labels started using in the late 1970s).  There are no liner notes nor pictures from the show save for the front cover. Even the book in the boxed stet has bare bones information. So that is a bit underwhelming given this is a featured element in the boxed set. However, the quality of the performance and the sound do go a long way to make up for the lack of visual accoutrement (if you will).

Still, if you are into Billy Joel’s music and just needed one excuse to buy Billy Joel: The Vinyl Collection, Vol. 1, the inclusion of Live At The Great American Music Hall 1975 is it.  Of course, if you are like me, you probably still have your old Billy Joel albums in your collection so perhaps having some fresh vinyl there wouldn’t hurt either.  

Indeed, if you are a deep fan, this set is a no brainer to pick up. 

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