The implication surrounding this restored version of Billy Joel’s 1987 VHS release Live in Leningrad is that it played some larger cultural role in Russo-U.S. relations. Even if that was the point then, and it’s an eminently debatable point, that’s not what gives A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia any lasting import.
Instead, it’s watching Billy Joel tearing through a batch of Phil Ramone-produced songs, having a ball, engaged in the moment — in short, being the rock star that he no doubt was. A small point, to be sure, back then. But something he seemed to progressively lose interest in, not long after. Joel is still out there, these days. Still performing. But he hasn’t issued a studio album in more than 20 years, and he hasn’t seemed this present in far longer than that.
This isn’t about the Berlin Wall coming down. A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia (due May 20, 2014 via Columbia/Legacy in 2CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats, and now including a whopping 11 previously unreleased songs) is about remembering Billy Joel as he was — a piano-banging everyman who put forward a series of straight-forward all-American musical moments (part Beatles, part doo-wop, part stadium rock, part Tin Pan Alley) that connected because of who he was and how he played. He looked like the characters he sang about, and that made them seem all the more real.
Not long after this tour, of course, he began backing away. Ramone went, then many of his core band members. Next went pop music altogether. That’s made it easy to forget what made Billy Joel a hitmaker in the first place.
A Matter of Trust creates a bridge not to the U.S.S.R., but back to that guy. You see it in these small moments: When he cracks a smile at Mark Rivera’s rhythmic antics during “Allentown,” when he growls and barks through Ray Charles’ parts on “Baby Grand.” When he launches into the crowd for a crowd surf through the previously unreleased “Longest Time,” when he spins like a kid atop his piano during “Big Shot.” His enthusiasm, his joy, is as contagious as it is seemingly gone forever.
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