MOSCOW, JULY 26 -- The Soviet capital let its spotlight fall on Billy Joel tonight, and for the crowd of 20,000, the pop singer's two-hour concert was a delightful American myth come true.
Opening a six-concert Soviet tour, Joel stepped on stage at Moscow's Olympic Stadium wearing blue jeans, sneakers and sunglasses and put on a show that would have been familiar to his western fans -- singing ballads about neighborhoods in Manhattan or Pennsylvania, cracking jokes about his New York upbringing, doing stunts with his piano and microphone, describing his wife (model Christie Brinkley) as "my inspiration" -- but seemed unusually fresh to a Soviet audience.
It was mostly Joel's flashy mannerisms that brought the crowd alive. After a slow start with jokes that didn't translate ("I don't speak Russian, but coming from New York, a lot of people in the States don't understand me either") and songs that were too slow ("Angry Young Man," "Allentown"), Joel yanked the audience toward him with one swift gesture.
Inviting them to come close to the stage, he shook hands, collected flowers and then launched into a spirited rendition of one of his catchiest melodies, "The Longest Time."
"That's the way we do it," he said.
Reacting with delight, much of the crowd abandoned its caution and took to the aisles, dancing, clapping and singing along and punctuating it all with a prolonged standing ovation.
Joel's records are not sold here, and his name is not a household word as it is in America. Yet some of his most familiar tunes generated the most applause: "Just the Way You Are," "An Innocent Man" and "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me."
The best known American pop musician to tour the Soviet Union to date -- and the first to present a full-scale, high-tech rock show -- Joel captivated the crowd with an elaborate light show and a few dramatic stunts, such as helicopter sounds during "Goodnight Saigon" and "street gangs" on stage during "Big Man on Mulberry Street" and "Stiletto."
And Joel won over some new fans here by sprinkling his chatter with a few Russian words and dedicating his song "Honesty" to the late Vladimir Vysotsky, a popular Russian balladeer.
Joel insisted that some tickets be sold to the public as a condition for the Soviet tour. As a result, tickets went fast -- proving the thirst for rock is strong -- and the audience was motley, a mixture of Soviet children, teens and adults.
During a pretour trip to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, word spread quickly that Joel was having a jam session and he ended up giving an impromptu concert. Impressed with the cameras, throngs of fans and autograph seekers there, Joel said in a brief interview tonight, "I'm always surprised that I have fans anywhere," adding, "It's great."
On Saturday Joel visited Vysotsky's grave, near Moscow, which has become a national shrine. "It looked like more people there than at Lenin's tomb," he said.
"I asked people why they liked him," Joel said tonight, "and they said, 'Because he told the truth.' I am impressed that people here put such value on the truth. And I felt a kind of kinship."
Besides his dedication of "Honesty" to Vysotsky, Joel's performance contained a mixed bag of political overtones.
"Everything you do is politics," he told a crowd of journalists before the concert. "But to get up on a soapbox about it would be counterproductive. I'm playing my political cards close to my chest."
Nevertheless, Joel opened his concert tonight with "Angry Young Man," about someone who has taken leftist politics too seriously "with his working-class views and his radical plans."
His song "Allentown" describes the miserable lives of the youth in a decaying American steel town and his "Goodnight Saigon" is critical of the havoc wreaked by the Vietnam war.
Joel indicated that he may change his repertoire during the remaining two concerts in Moscow and three in Leningrad, based on the reactions of the opening-night crowd.
"The importance of this thing," Joel said, "is performing in a city where I have never been before, where I don't know if they know me. This is the most exotic place for that. It's not just being a pop star.
"What a wonderful way to end a tour called 'The Bridge,' " he added.