Let’s get one thing straight. This idea that old guys can’t rock is just nonsense. It only stands to reason that the longer a musician performs, the better they get. (Excepting of course those who blew out a few too many brain cells along the way.) Leon Russell—who was inducted into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame this April—showed an enthusiastic audience at The Royal in Nelson that even if he can barely walk, he still rocks with the best of ’em.
Russell opened strong with his signature tune Delta Lady—one of the songs that launched Joe Cocker’s career on the legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour (organized by Leon). The band moved quickly into classic Robert Johnson number Come On In My Kitchen, thanks to the able chops of guitarist Chris Simmons, followed by the swamp blues piano-guitar romp of Sweet Little Angel. The studio version of Delta Lady, with its pile-driver combo of black diva backup chorus and horns was clearly an influence on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street, which came out two years after Russell’s self-titled 1970 album. Both Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman played on that record and Russell toured with the Stones during that period.
Russell is known for his taciturn attitude toward the media during his career. On the ‘Leon Speaks’ page of his webpage it reads: “Leon speaks through his music,” a message that younger pop icons would do well to imitate. (www.leonrussellrecords.com) But during this show he was positively talkative. He opened by saying that he considers himself “a bit of a xenophobe; I haven’t been outside the States that much, mostly because I hate border crossings. It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.” His unease comes with good reason. The bandits in uniforms at Canadian customs searched the band’s tour bus, holding them up for nearly two hours and fining Russell $250 for not declaring a drawer full of cash earned in recent concerts. While apologizing for “talkin’ too much,” it was fascinating to hear him relate anecdotes of his formative days, playing clubs in his native Oklahoma as a teenager. “They had no liquor laws in Oklahoma in those days—it was a dry state; I was over my alcoholism by 18.” Russell spoke of moving to California to go into advertising, “but after they hurt my feelings a couple times I decided to play on peoples’ records instead.” It was then he met and worked with The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Allmusic.com describes him as the “ultimate rock ’n roll session man,” and indeed his resumé of session work reads like a who’s who of modern music, from ’60s pop rock outfits like Gary Lewis and the Playboys and The Byrds to his glory days in the ’70s backing Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker, and George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh, to mention only a few. Russell’s version of Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall—which he performed with gusto at The Royal—has become the signature version of the song. He spoke of meeting Dylan about the time he made his Nashville Skylinealbum (1969) when Russell was heading to upstate New York to record an album (he didn’t say which one) with iconic session players Jim Keltner and Carl Radle. He recalls Dylan going outside the control booth to write the next song even as the previous one was receiving its finishing touches. “I said to myself, I’d sure like to learn how to do that!”
Russell’s show at The Royal hit all the high notes of his career, including other favourites such as Tight Rope, plus a ripping fast blues shuffle version of The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen A Face. The King of Swamp Blues graciously sat back to allow Chris Simmons a slide guitar sweetened solo set featuring classic Robert Johnson number Kind Hearted Woman. Russell then delivered solo probably his most famous tune, A Song For You. The band returned for a high-octane closing medley that included Russell’s aptly Jagger-esque Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, and Kansas City. The band didn’t bother to go through the time-worn routine of leaving the stage and waiting for the inevitable calls for an encore. “My feet hurt too much to do that anymore,” said Russell, “so just imagine that we did,” launching into a blistering medley of Great Balls of Fire, Roll Over Beethoven and Blue Suede Shoes. Talk about going out with a bang!
Elton John has openly stated his admiration for Russell, declaring him his favourite piano player. At the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Russell said Sir Elton “found me in the ditch by life’s highway about a year ago,” with an invitation to record an album together, resulting in The Union (2010). The album generated a hit single, If It Wasn’t For Bad, and entered the charts at #3, Russell’s highest ranking since 1972’s Carney. Elton John is graciously honouring the mentor whose influence is clearly heard in his own classic catalogue with tunes like Your Song. It’s a refreshing trend of ‘giving back’ that has included Eric Clapton through his Crossroads concerts and albums such as The Road to Escondidowith JJ Cale. (Sir Elton’s induction speech for Russell is worth a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT5aYRgmgyM)
Russell’s show gave the lie to the media image of washed up rock ’n roll geezers. Bruce Cockburn, on his album Life Short, Call Now, wrote of “rockers with walkers”—a line that’s both satire and tribute. Granted, BB King in his 80s can’t pull off a show anymore, and blues legend Sippie Wallace’s voice was a sad caricature of itself at that age. Sometimes ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ But have the grace to listen first before writing them off.
With thanks to Howie and Paul.