Saturday, January 3, 2015

Billy Joel: George and Ira Gershwin Prize, Library of Congress (PBS-TV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was a tribute to Billy Joel from Washington, D.C. on the occasion of him winning the George and Ira Gershwin Prize for popular songwriting, which had been given five times previously: in 2007 to Paul Simon, in 2009 to Stevie Wonder, in 2010 to Paul McCartney, in 2012 to Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and in 2013 to Carole King. (In my opinion, the next one should absolutely go to Elvis Costello, who actually participated as an artist in the tribute concert for McCartney — either him or the most obvious American missing from that list, Bob Dylan!) Billy Joel’s win was announced on July 22, 2014, and if anything what the special proved was how strong the “legs” of Joel’s songs are, how well they respond to other musicians’ approaches instead of just being personal vehicles for their composer. It also helped that the jawboning from the announcers was kept to a minimum and the show emphasized the music — even the MC, Kevin Spacey, had proven himself a capable singer in his Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, and at the end of the concert he joined Joel and the rest of the participants playing the harmonica part on Joel’s star-making song, Piano Man. The mini-bio of Joel mentioned that his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, made in 1971, had flopped — though it didn’t note that the reason was it was made for Ampex, a company that mostly made tape recorders and pre-recorded tapes, and they took a brief flyer into the record business in the early 1970’s that ended just after Joel’s album was released. (Since then Columbia, the label he’s been on the entire rest of his career, bought the master and reissued it on CD.) The show opened with a dance troupe choreographed by Twyla Tharp doing a hot (in more senses than one) number to Joel’s recordings of “Middle of the Night” and “Keeping the Faith,” and the sight of all those muscular male dancers in skin-tight costumes was fun for non-musical reasons. (There were women in the dance troupe, too, but they were easy to overlook.) Then Boyz II Men came out for a lovely a cappella version of  “The Longest Time” which was one of the highlights of the show — a neo-doo-wop group doing Joel’s tribute to doo-wop — followed by Lee Ann Rimes, the Joan Sutherland of pop, mush-mouthing her way through “You’ll Always Be a Part of Me.” (I like her voice, but will someone please get her some diction lessons?)

Then an artist whose name I heard as “Gavin McGraw” came out and did one of my favorite Joel songs, “It’s Still Rock ’n’ Roll to Me” (yes, he wrote it somewhat opportunistically to prove he was still “relevant” in the early 1980’s era of punk and “new wave,” and a punk band inevitably did a parody called “It’s Still Billy Joel to Me,” but it’s still a great song and it is all just rock ’n’ roll to me!), and the show cut to a film clip of Joel himself performing “Only the Good Die Young” in Leningrad during his 1987 tour of the Soviet Union. (Remember Leningrad? Remember the Soviet Union?) Apparently Joel was the first Western artist allowed to come into the U.S.S.R. and do a full-out rock ’n’ roll show — the clip shows him (his hair cut relatively short but still there) jumping around on stage — Elton John and others had been allowed in earlier but they’d been told they could only sit on stage and play (and Elton was allowed to bring only Nigel Olsson accompanying him on congas, not his full band). The clip also reminded us of Joel’s long-time drummer Liberty DeVitto (I love his name and I also love his kick-ass playing!), and how his music suffered (especially on the fast songs) when he and Joel parted company. Then Josh Groban came out and did a perfectly serviceable version of “She’s Always a Woman,” after which there was a clip of Joel doing “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the final concert at Shea Stadium in 2008. (He still had a little hair left; he’s now completely bald, and this gives him a rather severe mien it’s hard to reconcile with the bushy long hair he had during his debut.) After that Michael Feinstein came out and played, not anything by Billy Joel, but a brief bit of “Rhapsody in Blue” to honor the people (one of them, anyway) the award Joel was getting was named for. After some more speechmaking the stage was taken over by some of the most powerful performers all night, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks singing an impassioned version of “She’s Got a Way”; John Mellencamp recasting “Allentown” as if Bob Dylan had written it (it worked, but somehow I like Joel’s own version better — particularly the jarring contrast of a political lyric and Joel’s usual showbizzy New York style); and (after a spoken tribute by Paul McCartney, an excerpt from the 2008 Shea concert of Joel and McCartney performing a bit of “I Saw Her Standing There,” and another bit of the Twyla Tharp dancers doing “Shameless”) Tony Bennett belting his heart out on “New York State of Mind” (even though the city he most famously lost his heart to is his native one, San Francisco) and making me wonder how he’s been able to keep his voice together so long with only the hint of raggedness associated with age. (His voice certainly has held up better than Frank Sinatra’s did!)

Fortunately, the producers of this show cut the “tribute” part at this point — no one could have followed Tony Bennett singing a Billy Joel song except Joel himself doing so, and though his current (Black, dreadlocked) drummer doesn’t have Liberty DeVitto’s power Joel nonetheless uncorked scorching versions of four of his most intense songs: “Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out,” “Vienna Waits for You,” “Lights Out on Broadway” (the one he played on the benefit for Hurricane Sandy relief, which sounded uncannily like he’d written it for the occasion even though he hadn’t) and “You May Be Right (I May Be Crazy).” During his set he briefly played the intro to “Just the Way You Are” — one of those songs, like Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” that became so ubiquitous in its day you grew sick of it (well, I did, anyway) and then heard it again years later and thought, “Wow, that really was a good song.” Joel was making the point that the sheet music printed his intro incorrectly and he gets tired showing up anywhere there’s a singer-pianist performing, said singer-pianist spotting him in the audience and playing “Just the Way You Are” in his honor and faithfully reproducing the wrong intro. “But I’m not going to play that song,” Joel said after his demonstration. The finale brought everyone back on stage for “Piano Man,” another song that’s become so ubiquitous it’s acquired a patina of respectability when in fact it’s a pretty radical piece of material whose whole theme is the alienation of a professional musician who’s sick and tired of playing cocktail-lounge gigs at which no one is listening to him!