Leon Russell rolls on
My first exposure to Leon Russell was hearing his 1970 self-titled debut, when he was but 28.
Everything was just right – from the quality of his songwriting (beginning, as it did, with “A Song For You”) to his slurred Tulsa drawl and up-front, rollicking piano-playing. Country, blues and rock – it was all here, trumpeted by a one-of-a-kind character who not only looked like a rock star, but seemed to enjoy the whole package.
Add to this his cumulative value as musical icon – the busiest studio musician ever, producing and playing on such an incredible list of Who’s Who musicians that the list of who he didn’t work with would be shorter than the list of those he did. Years passed – his Asylum Choir work with Marc Benno, his Shelter People days, Carney – with its a propos, semi-autobiographical cover art, Hank Wilson. His Mad Dogs & Englishmen work with Joe Cocker, his days in the Wrecking Crew, his prominent role in George Harrison‘s Concert for Bangladesh, a regular at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnics – all kept his profile high and his reputation mighty.
Yet, this man of incredible influence, phenomenal talent and impeccable taste gradually faded into the past, although he kept recording, touring continually. It seemed wrong but such is life. Sir Elton John took it upon himself to bring back this hard-working musical dynamo with plans to record an album with him, at a time when Leon’s body was breaking down – the sessions were interrupted for Leon’s apparent need for brain surgery to repair a fluid issue, together with complications from a heart condition and pneumonia. But like Hank Wilson, Leon’s back – with a complete recovery, fresh dates in larger clubs thanks to an updated profile and – for me – a chance to see a favourite icon run through some of my favourite songs as only he can do.
Opening the night at the Sound Academy was Paul James and his band. Not having seen him play in years, it was a thrill to see the man ‘who still looks more like Bob Dylan than Dylan ever did’ play a powerful set to a loving hometown crowd.
Coming on with fire in his eyes, James ran through a spirited collection of songs including a riveting version of “Milk Cow Blues” (guitar and harp), a tribute to his late friend Bo Diddley (which got a resounding crowd response) and a bang-up version of the Everly’s “Cathy’s Clown” as his wife Sue joined him.
Keeping them coming, James added an impressive version of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, Mink DeVille’s “Broken-hearted Lovers” and another crowd favourite – a spirited round of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” – underlining James’ tireless ability to inject his sizeable spark into a crowd….and an older one at that.
It was Leon’s turn to dazzle – and dazzle he did, looking like God Almighty, his snow white hair flowing into his identically-coloured, full beard, topped off with a white cowboy hat and patented aviator shades. If you hadn’t seen him approach his stack of keyboards with the help of a cane, you’d never know he’d been to hell and back. And from the opening strains of “Delta Lady”, bolstered by a stable of young’uns, his voice sounded exactly as it should.He even talked with the audience – an unexpected treat, regardless of how canned the dialogue may have been.
This was no post-op Senior making a dash for a final payday while he could still go through the motions – Leon was truly back and in good form. And the classics kept on coming as his long-time bassist, Jackie Wessel, appeared to steer the band through its paces. Almost too polished at times,
Leon Russell is bigger-than-life. His songwriting, alone, should keep him in the public eye, let alone his accomplishments and relationships throughout the music industry over the years.
Yet he was quietly disappearing under the radar in his later years. Continually performing despite flagging health and advancing years, he had transformed himself into a shadow of his former self. When Elton John let slip on the Elvis Costello Show that he might be recording with Russell on a project helmed by T-Bone Burnett, his heart was in the right place.
The release, The Union, brought Russell’s importance as a founder of the Tulsa sound and a world-class songwriter and performer, back into the limelight. Brain surgery to repair a serious fluid leak delayed the sessions until Russell emerged victorious at the other end. He could just as easily have died, as complications from heart failure and pneumonia offered a bleak prognosis. Yet here he was – dishing out his well-worn treasures, the survivor of a storied career.
The immediate magic upon hearing the energetic opener, “Delta Lady”, hit a nerve recalling his gruff, gravel-throated, drawl-caked charm as he drifted from revival-esque gospel to blues, rock’n’roll and back again.
Introducing elements of country via guitarist Beau Charron’s doubling up on steel guitar, Russell also applied funky rhythms (thanks to the crisp, seamless support of drummer Brandon Holder) to a version of “Wild Horses”, adding tinges of jazz to Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind”, which featured a stand-out guitar solo from main guitarist Chris Simmons.
Reminding us of his next stop joining the Dylan tour, he treated his adoring crowd to “Watching The River Flow”, a song he claims he wrote for Bob on his birthday. Paying tribute to his relationship with Ivory Joe Hunter, he covered “Inner City Mama”, revealing the blues strengths in both Charron and Simmons. A somewhat chunky update to “Hummingbird” was eclipsed by a lively version of “Tightrope”, allowing Russell license to showcase his ever-romping piano work.
A few songs were delivered in Autopilot fashion as Russell dipped back into medleys of his favourite music – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone/Paint It Black/Kansas City and, for his non-encore (saving him some needless legwork), “Great Balls Of Fire/Good Golly Miss Molly/Roll Over Beethoven”.
Far more show than expected, and a tasteful reminder of Leon Russell’s rightful place in the legacy of modern music, the audience couldn’t have asked for more – except maybe more of his beloved originals. The fact that he’s back – and seems well – was the best news of all.
Photography by Eric Thom