Setlist History: Billy Joel Rocks Russia

Billy Joel became an American trailblazer in the Soviet Union when he played a half dozen shows in Moscow and Leningrad in the summer of 1987.

The prior year, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost to his nation which loosened restrictions on criticizing the government, learning about problematic Russian history, and allowed for news and media to reach the people.

“He was a fan of Elvis Presley, he liked rock ’n’ roll,” Jim Brown, the producer of the Soviet rock documentary said of Gorbachev. “He felt rock was for young people and that young people wanted rock ’n’ roll."

Joel's trip to the Soviet Union was documented on video and audio in A Matter of Trust

The Piano Man wasn't the first American artist to rock on Soviet soil, that honor goes to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who was sent over in 1979 by the scheming President Jimmy Carter who thought the music would help bring peace to the (cold) warring countries.

Years later Gorby had the same idea.

Joel had already been on the road on a seemingly never-ending The Bridge tour that had begun in September '86 when he arrived in Moscow.

Even though the six Soviet shows would be a financial drain for the musician who was traveling with 130 in the crew and band, the Soviets had never seen a big time modern rock concert.

No offense, NGDB.

In fact, it was in 1979 when Joel went to Cuba to rock for the people. That successful soiree sold him on the idea of one day playing in Eastern Europe.

"I thought, 'If I can do that in Havana, why can't I do it in Moscow?'" he said in a press conference in '87.

Because of the stoic nature of the Soviets, Joel tinkered with the set from show to show, taking out some of his softer hits and replacing them with rockers. As the crowds warmed to the New Yorker, Joel warmed to them and was eventually stage diving into the enthusiastic audiences.

The set on July 27th was spread out evenly with a pair of songs off five albums and a song each from Piano Man and Turnstiles.

The best moments from those shows were captured on A Matter of Trust, the CD and DVD which originally was called Kontsert when it was released in late '87 on audio.

In 2023, Joel has been ping-ponging back and forth from North America and Europe making regular stops at Madison Square Garden. So far he's also done three performances with Stevie Nicks in what is called Two Icons - One Night, which they co-headline.

Even though Billy won't probably be rocking Moscow any time soon, he might be playing near you soon. Get tickets on his website.

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