Reissue Review: Billy Joel, “A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia”

Written by Music, Reissue Reviews

When word leaked that 2014 would see an expanded edition of Kohuept, many Billy Joel fans were left scratching their heads. Originally released in 1987 to commemorate a series of concert in the Soviet Union–the first time a Western rock musician had performed in that country–that had made headlines following a bizarre onstage tantrum, Kohuept occupied an odd place in the Long Island singer/songwriter’s catalog. As either a document of the Soviet concerts or of Joel and his longtime backing band’s (which would soon undergo radical changes) live prowess, Kohuept was frustratingly incomplete–it was missing several songs that had appeared in radio broadcasts from the tour–and overly slick.

It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that this expanded incarnation, re-titled A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia, is not simply a much stronger and more satisfying live album–it is an excellent representation of Joel’s peak as an arena rocker and a pop star. The minimal improvements in sound quality will only be noticeable to audiophile, but the addition of twelve previously unreleased songs (including a rehearsal cover of the Beatles’ “She Loves You) makes a huge difference. In fact, what was a truncated and haphazard collection of live hits now sounds like an energetic full-length performance, complete with several live staples, an early album track (“The Ballad of Billy the Kid”) and the stellar “What’s Your Name”/”The Longest Time” medley, whose exclusion from the original album has to be one its most questionable choices. Joel’s voice is still rough in spots and some songs diverge only marginally from the recorded versions, but A Matter of Trust is easy to recommend to fans who may not have thought they needed more of the lackluster Kohuept.

A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia is available as a 2-cd set (The Music) of the expanded live album, as well as in a deluxe edition that  includes a DVD or Blu-Ray (The Concert, also available separately) featuring an 82-minute concert film and The Bridge to Russia, a 75-minute documentary broadcast on Showtime! earlier this year. The concert film, now presented in crisp widescreen format, includes a half-dozen of the same previously unreleased performances added to the cd, and for once the visuals do add to the experience–particularly the long cuts to an often ecstatic audience of young music fans thrilled by Joel’s antics (he crowdsurfs during “The Longest Time”, climbs atop and jumps off his piano and interacts with the audience throughout the concert).

Some may find the documentary’s emphasis on Joel’s–and the Soviet tour’s–contribution to a climate of growing freedoms in the Soviet Union during a period characterized by Mikhail Gorbachev’s emphasis on glasnost and perestroika a bit heavy-handed, but new interviews with Joel, Christie Brinkley, several band members, Soviet rock musicians and even Oleg Smirnoff, Joel’s onstage interpreter, shed a lot of light on the tour’s complicated logistics–and finally explain Joel’s famous onstage freakout (I won’t spoil the anecdote here). Most moving are Joel’s interactions with a Gorky Park circus clown and fan, Viktor, who tells the musician that he could be “a bridge” between the cultures and became the inspiration for Storm Front‘s “Leningrad“.

A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia is out now.