Over the course of ninety minutes Wednesday evening, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell proved why he’s one of his generation’s most underrated storytellers during the second of two sold out concerts at City Winery…
Following his collaboration with Elton John on the 2010 album The Union and his receipt of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Award For Musical Excellence” in 2011 (which replaced the “sidemen” category that same year), arguably, Leon Russell’s profile is at its highest in decades.
But, in terms of accolades, it’s his 2011 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame that’s most fitting. As if those contained in his songs weren’t enough, at 72, Russell has stories of his own to tell too and, fittingly, those stories dominated his sold out City Winery set Wednesday night.
As great as they were, the stories he told about everyone from Elvis Presley and B.B. King to Bob Dylan and George Harrison only alluded to the most interesting story of all: Russell’s career itself – one that was influenced early on by the clashing worlds of his Methodist upbringing with the Pentecostal music he grew up hearing on the radio in Oklahoma.
Midway through the set, Russell hit on those early influences, covering Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Kansas City Woman.” Hunter, a songwriter and pianist known as “The Baron of the Boogie” for his work in the mid-40’s, experienced an unexpected comeback in the sixties in the country music genre, a then unheard of crossover. His influence on Russell, who hit on rock and roll, blues, country and more, was obvious Wednesday night, even if their career parallels were less so.
Ray Charles loomed large Wednesday too. Preceding a terrific story about the time he met Elvis – and was too starstruck to come up with anything worthwhile to say – Russell opened the show with his take on Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” though he performed it more in the vein of the Elvis cover as he was quick to point out. Later on, it was his take on “Georgia on my Mind” that served as one of the night’s highlights, slowing things down, if only for a moment, the upright bass of Jackie Wessel setting the tone.
And really, it was Russell’s tight, three-piece backing band that served as his secret weapon all night providing harmonies, backing vocals and an instrumental backbone throughout. Multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron was playing something different every time I looked over at him but it was his handling of both electric guitar and organ on “Georgia” that stood out most. Drummer Brandon Holder was fantastic, laying the foundation for the quartet’s road tested chemistry.
While the Stones may slow down for it, Russell and company broke out into a full-on gallop for their energized take on “Wild Horses.” The performance, heavier on country and powered by Charron’s playing of the pedal steel, followed a story about Flying Burrito Brother, and frequent Keith Richards co-conspirator, Graham Parsons, who Russell credits for initially suggesting he sing that song.
In between stories about things like Nudie suits and Al Jolson’s hat or people like Joe Cocker and even his ex-wife, Russell worked his own songs in amidst the covers, a series of songs featuring only his voice and tickling of the ivories standing amongst the evening’s best. The sparse arrangement and plaintive plea for forgiveness that was “A Song For You” went all the way back to his self-titled, debut solo album in 1970. In a City Winery room where I once saw Booker T. Jones (who guested with Russell and Elton John on The Union) explain his love of the song before covering it, Wednesday’s performance by Russell was that much more affecting.
Poking fun at the stereotypical idea of the encore – before eschewing it altogether – Russell welcomed his band back to the stage for two terrific medleys, the first of which was all about rolling stones, moving deftly from the Rolling Stones (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) into The Temptations (“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) and back (“Paint it Black”) before closing with an appropriate, piano powered, boogie-woogie throwdown on Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry (“Great Balls of Fire” into “Roll Over Beethoven”).
– Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
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