Liberty DeVitto - drums; Kevin Dukes - electric guitar; Peter Hewlett - backing vocals; Russell Javors - acoustic guitar; Billy Joel - vocals, piano, guitar; David LeBolt - keyboards; Mark Rivera - alto and tenor saxophone; George Simms - backing vocals; Doug Stegmeyer - bass, vocals; Oleg Smirnoff - onstage translator
The year following the adoption of glasnost, Billy Joel would become one of the first major American rock performers to play in the Soviet Union since the Berlin Wall was erected, making it a historically significant visit. During his 1986 tour supporting the release of The Bridge album, Joel and his management began planning this monumental endeavor. Six concerts were planned; three in Moscow and three in Leningrad. In June of 1987, Joel, along with his family and full touring band, set off for Russia. To offset the costs of the trip, the entourage was filmed for television and video, and plans were made to simulcast the final night of the tour on radio around the world, another musical landmark at the time. A live double album and video documentary were also planned to encapsulate the trip. The album was released in the fall of 1987, titled Kohuept (closest phonetic English/Russian for "concert") and contained highlights of the tour. In 1991, the documentary surfaced as A Matter Of Trust and additional concert footage was issued as Billy Joel: Live From Leningrad, USSR, both released on video and DVD. Estimates calculate that Joel spent more than a million dollars of his own money to finance the trip and concerts, but for a history buff like Joel, this was money well spent and he has been quoted as saying that the goodwill he was shown in Russia was well worth the expense.
Unlike the above mentioned releases, which were essentially edited highlights from The Bridge tour sets recorded at the Russian concerts, the recording we have here is the nearly complete final night of the tour, exactly as it went down. Never known as the world's most sensitive guy, Joel wisely drops his streetwise rock star guise here. The vast majority of the audience cannot understand English, let alone Joel's New York/New Jersey sense of humor, but with the help of translator Oleg Smirnoff, Joel makes a conscious effort to communicate with the audience between songs. He obviously is aware that he is facilitating an important event, and his ability to communicate with the audience, while not always successful, does show him making an effort and his obvious nervousness makes this performance more endearing. However, the sometimes lengthy translation sequences between each song hinder the natural flow of the concert, and it is debatable what percentage of the Russian audience appreciated his commentary, since he is occasionally found hyping democracy to an essentially communist audience.
Not surprisingly, the Russian audience takes awhile to warm up to Joel, forcing him to work for their appreciation, rather than it being a given, as it had by then become throughout the tour. That aside, the universal language of music does eventually win the audience over and prompts an engaging performance from Joel and his band.
Joel performs only three songs from his current album, The Bridge, here; "Big Man on Mulberry Street," "Baby Grand," and "A Matter of Trust," fleshing out the rest of the night with some of his most engaging previous album material and a healthy dose of his biggest hits of the last decade. For the most part, Joel sticks to material released between his 1977 album, The Stranger and present, foregoing material from his earlier albums. In this context, it works well as most of the songs are immediately recognizable and with the help of his well-seasoned band, come across as strong and confident performances.
This set includes the memorable ballad, "She's Only A Woman," immediately followed by Joel's ambitious storytelling in "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." Later in the set, the wild abandon of "Only The Good Die Young" also surfaces. "Honesty" and the set-closing "Big Shot" represent the 1978 album, 52nd Street, with the remainder of the concert primarily focusing on his most familiar material from the 1980s. "It's Still Rock & Roll To Me" and "You May Be Right" represent the 1980 album, Glass Houses. Joel also performs "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid," from 1973's Piano Man, preceded by a brief rendering of the theme from the movie, The Magnificent 7, but it may be the back to back performances of "Allentown" and "Goodnight Saigon," both from 1982's The Nylon Curtain, that are most poignant. The former, with its thoughtful working class social commentary and the latter, a song referencing the Vietnam War and exploring the concept of loyalty, capture Joel at his most thought-provoking.
The show comes to a close with the massive recent hits, "Uptown Girl" and "Big Shot," prior to Joel belting out, appropriately enough, The Beatles' classic "Back In The USSR" to close the show. Unlike the releases from these historic dates on the tour, this recording allows one to listen to exactly how the last night went down, free of edits and studio enhancements. While the show has its strengths and weaknesses, overall it is an excellent performance documenting a major event in Billy Joel's career.