It was an incredible opportunity to see the legendary Leon Russell in a small local venue, although sadly, it’s mostly smaller clubs that he plays these days. The Downtown Brew in San Luis Obispo is the only club on California’s Central Coast and holds barely 400. We’d gotten our share of names but this appearance by the renowned musician was definitely at the top of the list.
At 68, Russell has been slowed a little by age and his January 2010 brain surgery. He hobbled onstage looking less like a former 70’s superstar than a burly, white-bearded Samoan Santa in an orange Hawaiian shirt and shades, his long Walt Whitman-like locks topped not by his trademark top hat, but a straw cowboy hat. Having just watched his balls-out performance at George Harrison’s 1971 concert for Bangladesh on DVD, I was stunned by this incarnation. Accepting the age and the white beard was one thing, but my God, rowdy, raucous, rock ringmaster Leon Russell with a cane? But that detail was quickly forgotten as he settled his now much more ample form behind the keyboard and the exciting, reassuringly familiar strains of “Jumping Jack Flash” flew out from those still nimble, magic fingers. The robust voice was there but now with an even more raspy edge. He played effortlessly, blinding the audience as he blazed from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to “Painted Black” to “Mystery Train” and “Sweet Little Angel.” An 8.0 seismic quake of melded blues and rock and roll shook the building. His four-piece backing band provided enthusiastic support. His bass player, Jackie Wessel, has been with him for 29 years. Young guitarist Chris Simmons cut a duet with Russell and, in his featured onstage solo, sounded very much like the young Leon. (Russell even gave him his treasured Gibson 355 guitar.) Drummer Brandon Holder and Beau Charron, keyboards, lap steel guitar and mandolin, round out the band.
Russell launched into one of his signature songs, “Lady Blue,” before he ever spoke to his enraptured audience. “Well, how are you all doin’ ?” he finally drawled. I had heard that he wasn’t prone to much patter between songs but he did attempt a few stories. The Lawton, Oklahoma native said that he had started playing classical piano from the ages of 3 to 13. He built his own crystal set, a simple radio receiver, to listen to blues and gospel. Russell especially liked bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter, who he was “jealous of for having such a great name.” Russell picked up a guitar at 14, when he started playing in Tulsa nightclubs in the 1950’s.
He added that he used to be the youngest man in the band, but he said, wistfully, not anymore. As expressive as he is on stage, his storytelling skills leave a lot to be desired. He dropped mind-blowing names: Clapton, Charlie Watts, Mick, George, Ringo, Dylan, but most of his anecdotes just trailed off, ending in “well, anyway…so much for history.” He also mentioned that Oklahoma is a dry state (unlike California) and that he had some money in the Bank of America but somebody told him that there wasn’t one to be found in San Luis Obispo. There was also a reference to “Miss O’Dell’s” book. The 60’s and 70’s super groupie who met Russell at Apple Records, Chris O’Dell wrote a 2010 memoir detailing her affairs with rock stars. Russell was afraid to read it, thinking that although he wrote his song “Hummingbird” for her, she might have described him as having “done something untoward.”
The music itself was free-flowing, Russell not letting the applause die from the last tune before he launched into another classic: “Georgia,” a rollicking version of the Beatles’ “Falling,” with mandolin, and “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” He dedicated an emotional version of his devastatingly beautiful, “This Song for You,” to Walter Hawkins. The recently deceased California gospel great (July 11, 2010) had been a close friend.
By the time he got to “Delta Lady,” people were lifted up and out of their folding chairs. The audience was a mostly over-fifty crowd, those who remembered the young Leon and appreciated what the master musician could still do. Two middle-aged women were lost in his fiery back draft, captured, enraptured, dancing around a support post. Russell acknowledged the audience appreciation with, “Bless your heart!”
“This is the part of the show where we leave you with a couple of rock ‘n roll songs. Sing along if you know the words and even if you don’t, ” he teased. He succeeded to top himself with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Chuck Berry’s, “Roll Over Beethoven.” It was an astonishing, vigorous performance and then suddenly it was over. No ruse of leaving only to come back for a curtain call. Not when the great man needed a cane to get around. Russell rose from his keyboard, turned and left the stage, oblivious to a couple straining toward him, begging to get their album signed, just missing his attention.
I walked out and back to the stage door to ask that someone tell Russell that San Luis Obispo did indeed have a nearby Bank of America, just a few blocks away. His young, angelic-faced band member, Beau Charron, was standing outside. “I don’t use banks,” he smiled. “I live on student loans.” Just gives you an idea how tough life is on the road for Leon Russell and his band these days.
It’s an indignity that the legendary Russell has been mostly forgotten, playing small clubs for small audiences. This is after all, the man who put together Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour, produced and played on innumerable hit singles, worked as an accomplished session man with Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, among many, many others, blew Clapton, and Harrison off the Concert for Bangladesh stage and wrote the haunting, Grammy winning, “This Masquerade,” the first song to simultaneously top the jazz, pop and R&B charts. Leon Russell also started his own record company, Shelter Records, which was home to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, blues guitarist Freddie King, the Gap Band, and J.J. Cale. A guitarist, arranger, songwriter, producer, singer, musician, pianist, and mesmerizing performer, Russell has seen and done it all in nearly every musical genre. A new album, “The Union,” with his acolyte Elton John, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is coming October 19, with the song, “If It Wasn’t For Bad,” being released as a single. Let’s hope that the spotlight will shine again on one of rock’s great talents. The world will see that Leon Russell hasn’t lost a step, in spite of the cane.