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POP WEEKEND : FROM MOSCOW TO L.A. : SOVIETS WARM UP TO BILLY JOEL

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of Soviet spectators danced in the aisles Sunday night when Billy Joel performed his first concert in the Soviet Union.

Departing from the restraint usually seen in Soviet concertgoers, the fans accepted Joel’s invitation to leave their seats in the Olympic Arena and come closer to the stage where he and eight backup musicians had been performing for nearly an hour to only mild applause.

While police and security officers looked on nervously, an exuberant Joel stepped up the tempo and, at one point, left the stage to sing in the midst of the astonished crowd.

Even so, it appeared that a majority of the 20,000 people who got the coveted tickets for Joel’s opening night show were less than enthusiastic about the top American recording star.

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Alexander Belofsky, a 23-year-old law student at Moscow State University, said of the audience: “Most people are here out of curiosity and because they could get tickets. Young people--the real fans of Billy Joel--aren’t here because they are outside trying to get a ticket.”

Those who did get inside saw a remarkable display of American technology in the elaborate lighting and the booming sound system that Joel transported from the United States for his Soviet tour. At least 16 lighting technicians, some climbing rope ladders to get to their high perches, contributed to the show.

At first, Joel clearly was unhappy with the response, ad libbing, “I have got an oil painting on this side of the room,” in an apparent reference to the passive spectators.

Later, when his version of “Stiletto” received more than usual applause and cheers, he called for a pencil and said: “I want to make a note--crowd likes ‘Stiletto,’ so keep it in.”

The concert began about 25 minutes late--almost unthinkable for a Soviet performance--and there was impatient hand-clapping and shrill whistles as technicians completed a sound check.

Then, with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” blasting over the speakers, Joel and his backup musicians came on stage under blue lights and began to play.

Joel said a few words in Russian and got a big hand for dedicating one of his first songs to the late Vladimir Vysottsky, a folk singer who still is immensely popular seven years after his death.

“I went to see his grave and was very moved by the love and devotion people have for him,” he said in dedicating his song “Honesty” to Vysottsky. “I asked why. They said he spoke the truth.”

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At one point, Joel referred to the vast distances separating the spectators in the second and third tiers from the stage, saying, “Think about the people up there in China.”

Joel also told the audience that the first music he ever heard as a beginning piano student was Russian music--and he played a few bars of a Rachmaninoff prelude to instant applause.

Then, speaking through an interpreter, he added, “I made up my own music after awhile, and that’s why I am here today.”

Two of his songs had a special appeal to the Soviet audience. One of them, “Goodnight, Saigon,” about American involvement in the Vietnam War, was accompanied by searchlights playing around the hall and the sound effects of hovering helicopters.

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Perhaps the most popular number, however, was the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” which became a hit in the Soviet Union even though the British group never performed in this country and its records were, until recently, not available in the government stores.

Joel’s wife, model Christie Brinkley, was busy with a video camera taking pictures of the event from her seat in the audience. She got a round of applause when Joel introduced her during the concert, and some of her fans began chanting “Chris-tie! Chris-tie!” but she remained in her seat.

Many members of the audience presented Joel with flowers--a traditional tribute to performers here. At one point, he quipped, “I am going to open a flower shop.” Toward the end of the concert, bouquets were tossed onto the stage by admirers.

Joel and his band will play tonight and Wednesday in Moscow and Aug. 2, 3 and 5 in Leningrad. Spokesmen for his tour said expenses amounted to $2 million and he will be lucky to break even.

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While Joel said he had wanted to come to the Soviet Union to try to establish a musical connection with the Soviet people, he had no illusions that he alone could improve Soviet-American relations.

Joel is the first U. S. pop-rock star to bring a full-scale rock show to the Soviet Union, although Santana, the Doobie Brothers, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt participated here July 4 in the first stadium rock show involving U. S. and Soviet artists. The stadium event was designed as a celebration of the American Soviet Peace March.

Elton John was the first major pop-rock performer from the West to perform here when he and percussionist Ray Cooper did four shows each in Moscow and Leningrad in 1979.

Bill Graham, the San Francisco-based producer who staged the July 4 peace concert, said he believes Soviet officials, once cool to western rock, would like to see more rock performers come here, but he predicted few will accept the invitation because of the high cost of bring a show to the Soviet Union.

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