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Billy Joel

American piano man

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By Michael Norman  

Billy Joel is in a league of his own as a hit maker. Since 1972, when he signed his first solo recording contract, he has put 33 singles into the Billboard Top 40, making him one of the most prolific and successful artists of the rock era.  

His latest release, a two-CD, 32-song live set recorded in early 2006 during a 12-night stand at New York's Madison Square Garden, is a remarkable testament to both the depth and familiarity of his songbook. The hits come one after the other here, from "Piano Man" to "River of Dreams" and just about every other popular tune in between. They are delivered with high-energy passion and clarity by a fit-and-feisty Joel and his longtime touring band. There are plenty of surprises. There are cool takes on lesser known tunes like "Laura" and "A Room of Our Own," plus plenty of re-inventions and re-imaginings. "River of Dreams" is aired out, becoming a gone-to-church, sing-along gospel epic. "Miami 2017 (I've Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway") is transformed into a post-9/11 tribute to New York City. "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me" ends the set, churning like a foot-stomping arena rocker.

Some live albums feel like filler, an excuse to put something on the market between studio recordings. (Joel has already released two live albums during his 30-plus years in the spotlight - Songs in the Attic in 1981 and Kohuept in 1987.) But even if you already own those two recordings, 12 Gardens is certainly worth adding to the collection. It's a document of a mature artist still at the peak of his power, looking back on a long and fruitful life in music.

Michael Norman is Entertainment Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.