Billy Joel has been famously prickly in recent years about many of the archival releases bearing his name. But one hopes that the troubadour, currently in the midst of his tenure as a “franchise” at New York’s Madison Square Garden, is beaming with pride at A Matter of Trust – The Bridge to Russia. This set, available in a variety of audio and video formats from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, not only splendidly chronicles Joel’s historic 1987 trek to the Soviet Union but vividly rehabilitates the oft-derided (sometimes by the artist himself) live album KOHUEPT. Much like the current MSG shows, The Bridge to Russia is a potent reminder of the power and longevity of the body of work created by Joel in roughly two decades (1971-1993) as a recording artist. The troubadour might not have seemed the most obvious choice to break down doors previously not available to rock-and-rollers, but in retrospect, his uniquely American brand of scrappy tenaciousness – and his place in the tradition of the great Tin Pan Alley melodists – made him an ideal herald of the rock revolution.
When Joel and his entourage traveled to the Soviet Union as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policy of glasnost (openness and transparency) for six stadium shows in Moscow and Leningrad (plus one small acoustic show in Tbilisi), he had just two more studio albums ahead of him – not that anybody knew that at the time. It’s no wonder, then, that so much of the setlist as performed in Russia still resembles what you could expect to hear at a Joel concert today. (“Uptown Girl” is a notable exception as it’s only rarely performed now.) The Leningrad concert performance of A Bridge to Russia is available in audio form as a 2-CD set or in video form on DVD and Blu-ray; in addition, combination packages are available in CD/DVD and CD/BD formats, with these “box set” versions also including a new documentary film about the groundbreaking tour. The audio version of the concert is substantially longer than the video, and the songs are in a different sequence on each program.
For many, the centerpiece will be the audio presentation which expands KOHUEPT. The choppy, truncated original album is now a more vibrant and accurate representation of Joel at his stadium-filling peak with band members Liberty DeVitto (drums), Doug Stegmeyer (bass), Mark Rivera (saxophone), Dave LeBolt (keyboards), Russell Javors and Kevin Dukes (guitars). KOHUEPT was just Joel’s second live album after Songs from the Attic. As Songs was drawn from multiple performances in various venues and largely designed to reintroduce older material with Joel’s new, regular band, however, it wasn’t a full concert release. Expectations were high for this first-time genuine live-at-one-venue album, and upon its releases, those hopes were all but dashed. KOHUEPT put its best foot forward with a stunning solo piano rendition of “Honesty” which the artist dedicated to the great Russian actor/singer/songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky. After that, however, the vocal strain which affected Joel on the U.S.S.R. tour was even more evident on disc than it had been in person. There were other factors, too. The audience reportedly didn’t respond well to ballads, preferring the more rhythmic, uptempo tracks – a response to repression, perhaps? If Joel’s energy and voice were flagging from time to time, it was likely because of the high-octane setlist with few breathers.
He also sounded somewhat stilted in his onstage banter addressing an audience that not only wasn’t primarily English-speaking, but also wasn’t necessarily familiar with the Piano Man. The one official state-owned record company, Melodiya, also controlled the country’s record stores. Joel was not a Melodiya artist, and commercial rock music was not a major part of the culture in the Soviet Union at the time. There was, of course, none of the familiar applause for Joel’s mention of “Oyster Bay, Long Island” in “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” or recognition applause at the start of a hit song. The Soviet people couldn’t know the places and share the experiences chronicled in the American everyman Joel’s songs. Though the audiences warmed to Joel (as dramatically seen in the accompanying documentary), their natural inclination was to be reserved if appreciative. As a result, Joel worked even harder, and likely did even more damage to his voice.
What few knew at the time, however, is that much of the best material was left in the vault – until now. Eleven songs have been added to the audio release – eight in the concert proper, and three as bonus tracks. An a cappella doo-wop of Don and Juan’s oldie “What’s Your Name” introduces a very loose voice-only version of Joel’s homage to the genre, “The Longest Time,” and it’s a pivotal inclusion here. Joel and his band learned traditional Russian a cappella from the Georgians, and reciprocated by teaching doo-wop to the people. Though Joel had performed the “What’s Your Name/The Longest Time” sequence before, the performance in Leningrad took on added meaning. The newly-discovered “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is a powerfully charged reading of the song. “You May Be Right,” if gravelly, is utterly swaggering. “Pressure” boils with excitement. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is a lesser-known moment in a set packed with hits plus new songs from 1986’s The Bridge; back-to-back with another previously unissued song, “She’s Always a Woman,” the album takes on a more distinctive shape.
In this new context, much of KOHUEPT sounds stronger: the tough, robust “Sometimes a Fantasy” (the song which sparked an onstage tantrum from Joel at an earlier performance in Moscow), a strong, surging “Angry Young Man,” a gritty and an emotional performance of “Allentown.” When Joel’s streetwise, no-nonsense brand of rock and pop cedes to a simple, guitar-and-voice rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a song that would have long been off-limits to performers in the U.S.S.R., it’s a well-earned, poignant moment.
After the jump, we’ll explore the new documentary film and more!
The heart of Legacy’s new campaign, however, is the documentary film (also titled A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia) directed by Jim Brown. A viewing of the roughly 75-minute film puts the concert performance into perspective. The film is loaded with new interview footage from Joel, his then-wife Christie Brinkley (who accompanied Billy on the tour with their daughter Alexa in tow), surviving band members Liberty DeVitto, Mark Rivera, Russell Javors, Dave LeBolt and Kevin Dukes, Joel’s onstage translator Oleg Smirnoff and various behind-the-scenes personnel. Brown chronicles each stop of the Russian tour, cutting from new reminisces to vintage footage shot at the time by filmmaker Martin Bell. The documentary vividly paints a portrait of an artist at the top of his game who still has something to prove. It’s touching to hear Joel recall being inspired by the Russian people’s embrace of the pianist Van Cliburn, or DeVitto – who was discharged from the band in dramatic fashion – remembering his old employer giving 110% for his audience and suffering for it. The latter is illustrated with footage of him trying, and failing, to hit the high notes in “Big Man on Mulberry Street” during a pre-show rehearsal. Joel’s determination to live up to the high expectations for this cultural exchange is affecting.
Brown’s film addresses Joel’s infamous fit of pique onstage in Moscow, when his anger with the ever-present film crew led him to attack his grand piano and topple a smaller electric piano. But that was just one sensationalistic moment during a period which we’re led to believe was a truly transformative one for all involved. Smirnoff’s comments that “rock and roll is freedom” is a sentiment echoed by many of the participants especially as they reflect on the audience members – most of whom were unaccustomed to every aspect of the American concert experience from the volume to their own behavior. Smirnoff remembered the audience as afraid to react in any demonstrative fashion. The animated Joel’s crowd-surfing and engagement with his audience took on significance in Russia, and the documentary also chronicles his offstage connections with people from an ardent fan named Viktor to one vocally disapproving woman. Throughout it all, Joel and his band are as relatable and passionate as the music they performed. Jim Brown’s film is joined by a handsomely restored and expanded version of the Live from Leningrad concert movie running nearly 90 minutes with seven previously unreleased performances.
Each aspect of the deluxe package, produced by Jeff Schock and John Jackson, is top-notch. A thick, squarebound 80-page booklet contains five essays from writers with personal connections to, and memories of, the tour; they, too, concentrate on the overall culture shock and effect of Joel’s tour. Full lyrics are also a welcome inclusion. Ted Jensen has crisply remastered all of the music on the audio CDs under the supervision of Bruce Dickinson, with the previously unissued songs newly remixed by Frank Filipetti.
With today’s technology, the world seems an even smaller place than ever before. Even the Cold War can seem like a distant memory. A Matter of Trust – A Bridge to Russia chronicles one group of individuals’ efforts to spread the gospel of rock and roll during that heady period of history in spirited, often exhilarating style.
You can order Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia at the links below!