“A Matter Of Trust: The Bridge To Russia” is a really long-overdue full release of a previously heavily abridged 1987 live album, “Kontsert” (often referred to as “Kohuept”, which is the English attempt at replicating the Russian title) and comes in various formats, including music only, or music plus the visual concert on either DVD or Bluray. There was always something a bit disappointing about the original, if I’m completely honest. The audio quality was slightly weak, some of the harmonies on the tracks they chose were a bit wobbly and, given Billy’s reputation for long gigs, this abridged version was more that a touch unsatisfying. All of this has been rectified on “A Matter Of Trust” as the sound quality has been enhanced and the missing songs restored on a bumper double album, with the addition of a few bonus rehearsal tracks, a cracking version of The Beatles’ “She Loves You”, a solo “Piano Man” and a terrific “New York State Of Mind”. There is a beautiful thick booklet with pictures, posters, essays, lyrics and everything you could possibly want to know about Billy’s historic Russian concert. When I listened to “Kontsert”, it was enjoyable enough; when I listen to “A Matter Of Trust: The Bridge To Russia”, it is exciting, edgy and thrilling – I wish I could have been there. Of course, the occasional wobbly harmonies in “Uptown Girl”, the questionable second lead vocal in “An Innocent Man” plus the slightly raw lead vocals on “Honesty” are still present and correct, this isn’t a revisionist package, thankfully, but given the longer concert and the greater context of these wobbles, the odd slip here and there adds to the authenticity of the live performance.
When you listen to the full range of songs, it’s difficult to comprehend the original decision to have ever cut this performance down to a single album. These are excellent versions of “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid”, “She’s Always A Woman”, “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, “The Longest Time”, “Pressure”, “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me” and “You May Be Right” and all of them were missing from “Kontsert”. Truly baffling. Still, the wrong has been righted and we finally have this momentous performance captured in its full glory to enjoy on our stereos as well as the concert and accompanying documentary on either DVD or Bluray. The visuals are both brilliant and fascinating, capturing a unique moment in time and it’s difficult to accept that this footage is twenty-seven years old. The eighties haircuts, instruments and fashion notwithstanding (Mark Rivera’s afro is particularly amusing), this is a kick-ass band and, despite coming off the back of what is traditionally known as Billy’s weakest album (“The Bridge”, still a fine album in my opinion) there is nothing that falls short or sounds out of place. On the contrary, “Big Man On Mulberry Street” is big, brash and brilliant, “Baby Grand” hits a magnificently emotional spot even without Ray Charles’ vocals and “A Matter Of Trust” remains one of his most heartfelt love songs disguised as a mid-pace eighties rocker.
It’s fantastic to see Billy and the band giving such a vital, energetic performance (check out the energetic Mark hammering a metal bar during “Allentown” and dancing around during “Only The Good Die Young”, the superb Liberty DeVitto’s ever-animated, passionate drumming, the playful a capella “The Longest Time” as Billy gets carried over the audience and his microphone stand throwing escapades during a raucous “You May Be Right”) and playing to such a massively enthusiastic audience; such pure enjoyment is an absolute joy to behold. Joel’s piano playing is as breathtaking, scintillating and sensational as ever and it’s an excellent reminder (if anyone needed one) of his credentials as one of (if not the) greatest pianists in rock. When you listen to the music and watch the concert film, it’s important to remember that this could have been a disaster and, as Billy and Liberty reminisce on the documentary, when they started playing the first song to a very lukewarm reception, they thought they were “dead”. It was a cultural unknown for an American artist such as Billy to go over to Russia and give a full on rock ‘n’ roll show. This was the toughest gig he had played so far, but he pulled it off magnificently, giving just the right balance of showmanship, bravado and humility to show this new, unknown audience exactly what he was made of without appearing arrogant or superior. For anyone who is at all familiar with Billy’s work and demeanour, this will probably come as no real surprise, but it was still a massive gamble at the time and the way he engaged with his Russian-speaking audience (including bringing the infant Alexa Ray onto the stage) and brought them to their feet was something that only a showman like Billy could have done successfully.
The excellent documentary (directed and co-produced by Jim Brown) that accompanies the concert film is interesting, enjoyable and substantial, detailing Billy’s childhood fears of Russia, growing up during a time when the “reds” were nothing other than the the enemy. It depicts what a huge deal it was for Billy, how he had to side-step the politics between the two countries, how he initially met with hostility from US audiences when he stated his intent to play in Leningrad and how he was only interested in bring the two countries together, through music. The film was made very recently and features virtually all of the main players reminiscing about the project, but also features, as you may imagine, plenty of archive footage of the build-up to the ground-breaking concert. It also shows the pressures of being in Russia, of almost being ambassadors for their country and how Billy’s voice was suffering on the run-up to the big gig. This explains the raw edge to his vocals on some of the songs, although it has to be said that he sounds in fine voice throughout the vast majority of his performance. It’s the kind of documentary you will probably watch once and then perhaps come back to a few years later, but it’s excellent to watch it for the first time. This top-notch package completely makes amends for the hash they made of the original 1987 release and the huge levels of energy and showmanship bring it up to the same standard as other great Joel live albums/concert films, with the added bonus of an excellent documentary. Although I can truthfully say that I haven’t listened to “Kontsert” for years and it has always been a low point for me in an otherwise stellar career, this re-release and expanded version will be a live album I will be pulling out and playing far more regularly. Of course, what I and may other fans want is a new Billy Joel studio album, but, as it seems as if we will never get this, unreleased live material provides a fix, of sorts. This package, for a fan, is as essential as it gets.
“A Matter Of Trust: The Bridge To Russia” is available now on Columbia Records as either a 2 CD music only set or a 2 CD set with either a DVD or Bluray. The copy SonicAbuse reviewed was the DVD version.
Andy Sweeney, 29th May, 2014.