Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev's late 80s glasnost policy encouraged freedom of expression and relaxed the suppression of media. This allowed for two things: Public dissent against the soviet state; and a Billy Joel pit-stop on his world tour supporting The Bridge. After the signing of a cultural exchange agreement between Russia and the States, Joel was the first American pop musician to tour Russia with a full stage show (John Denver and Dave Brubeck, among others, had already made the rounds, but not with 100-person entourages). As such, Joel's tour was noted as sparking some of the very first non-uniform responses to a cultural event in Russia. The New York Times wrote of the previous night's performance: "At the rock concert, held Sunday night at the Olympic Stadium, thousands of people, energized by the presence and music of Billy Joel, bolted from their seats an hour into the performance and started dancing in the aisles and pressing around the stage… Many of the people there said they had never witnessed, much less taken part in, such a breakdown in the normal decorum at a public performance."
"The music is going to be played very, very loudly," Joel warns the audience, requesting that any who depart early give their tickets to those who couldn't get in.
Joel's set is marked by an emphasis on his attempt to communicate his Northeast American upbringing to the Moscow audience. He stresses "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "Allentown," and "Big Man On Mulberry Street" (which was recorded for his then-current release, The Bridge). And this partial set is ended with "The Longest Time," which Joel introduces as being "a little history lesson" in "New York a cappella," the type of thing they'd do on the street-corner while skipping school.
Joel's introductions ebb on the long-side. Feeling the weight of the tour as a political expression, Joel forgets that the audience just wants to rock. Before "Big Man On Mulberry Street," he notes having played Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for the audience as a prelude to the show, saying that it "represents the heart and the soul of New York City." The long-winded explanations are somewhat amusing, as Joel tries to explain to the Russian crowd his New York heritage through a translator. But from a listening standpoint, it is interruptive and unnecessary to an American audience. This small downside is more than made up for by Joel's humor. At the end of "Goodnight Saigon," Joel plays a few chords of Rachmaninoff, before scolding himself for not taking his piano lessons more seriously.
As a performer, Joel seems to be having a great time, with lots of his characteristic vocal embellishments. However this is likely the same show where Joel smashed a synthesizer out of frustration with his camera crew shining lights into an already timid audience's eyes. That incident, unfortunately, is not captured on this recording. The rest of the Russia engagement went on without a hitch, as the pop-rock diplomat traveled to Leningrad. A reputed history buff, Joel must have been having the time of his life sitting at this Cold War crossroads.