Music Review: Billy Joel - A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia (Deluxe Edition)

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Greatly expanding the original 1987 live album Концерт, A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia is now the definitive document of Billy Joel’s historic tour of the Soviet Union. The new two-disc version ups the track listing from 16 to 27, with spirited takes of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Pressure,” and “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” among the newly-unearthed highlights. There are also a few rehearsal recordings thrown in as bonus tracks, including “New York State of Mind” and a barnstorming treatment of The Beatles’ “She Loves You.” The original album was a solid sampler, but this is the full experience.

Perhaps best of all is the deluxe edition’s Blu-ray, which includes an 80-minute concert film and 75-minute documentary about the tour. The previously-available concert film Live in Leningrad (a VHS release in ’87) has been expanded to include an additional six tunes. It’s still considerably shorter than the album (and the order of songs has been somewhat shuffled), but it now feels like a complete show. Joel overcame some vocal issues (brought on by over-singing during a preview performance; his onstage monitors were too quiet) to invest a startling amount of energy in these shows. In fact, the entire band is super-hyped, leaping and boogieing around the stage like madmen. At times, Joel overplays his hand. “Baby Grand” should’ve never been done without Ray Charles, as Joel in sunglasses—growling “soulfully”—is really no substitute. His Cab Calloway-isms on “Big Man on Mulberry Street” aren’t much better, but at least that song is a big, brassy crowd pleaser.

A newly produced, 75-minute documentary about the entire Russian expedition is equally compelling. Though Elton John had done a short series of very small scale shows in Russia in 1979 (just John on piano, backed by Ray Cooper on drums), Billy Joel was breaking new ground by taking a massive, full-band rock show behind the Iron Curtain. Everything had to be “just so” for the perfectionist Joel, who exhibits more than a touch of outsize ego throughout the documentary. Of course, there was every reason for concern at the time. He frets over his vocal condition after the strain of the preview performance (snapping testily at then-wife Christie Brinkley, who is frequently seen with their toddler daughter Alexa Ray). He worries about his ability to connect to a largely non-English speaking audience, many of whom would’ve had no way to familiarize themselves with his music. Though the Soviet Union was in its waning days, Glasnost was still very much a new concept.

Billy Joel display (380x325).jpgThough the documentary utilizes a bit too many clips from the concert movie, we do get some alternate footage. Some of the tour’s shows found older Soviet bigwigs filling the front rows—they were bored out of their skulls. We see the stark contrast between these stuffy folks and the endearingly awkward younger enthusiasts. Joel’s infamous onstage temper tantrum is dealt with too, as we see him flip a keyboard over and violently flail about with a mic stand in reaction to the film crew lighting the audience (he felt it was killing the crowd’s enthusiasm). In addition to new interviews with Joel and Brinkley, we see new comments from various band members as they remember the life-changing experience.

The concert film has been restored from the original 35mm elements and it looks gorgeous on Blu-ray. The only aspect of the entire presentation that might disappoint is the LPCM 2.0 stereo mix, which is the only audio option. It’s surprising there’s no 5.1 mix, but the stereo track sounds great and is super punchy. As a bonus, there’s a live performance of “Pressure” not included in the concert film. It hasn’t been restored and, though watchable/listenable, really plays up the just how great the remastered concert looks.

Rounding out A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia is a thick booklet full of new essays. It’s an exemplary package and a must for anyone with even so much as a casual interest in Billy Joel.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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