in performance: leon russell

leon russell

 “Well, bless his heart,” remarked a female fan after Leon Russell opened a spirited 90 minute performance last night at Buster’s with Delta Lady and Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Bless him, indeed. The career renaissance Russell is currently experiencing at age 70 is a welcome but unexpected pop music occurrence. To celebrate the resurgence, Russell stuck to the familiar – specifically, tunes steeped in vintage piano blues and boogie woogie along with a churchy brand of Okie-bred R&B. And while the youthful bravado that fueled such a primitive Americana soul sound during the early ‘70s has long been a thing of the past, Russell was full of considerably more fire last night than he was  during club appearances from recent decades.

The program was organized more as a career retrospective than a recitation of hits – so much so that roughly one-third of the setlist was devoted to covers associated with the artists Russell has encountered, from bluesmen B.B. King and Ivory Joe Hunter to folk/country pioneers Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons. Of particular interest was a revivalistic cover of the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, a tune suggested by Parsons years before Russell recorded it on his underrated Stop All That Jazz album in 1974.

Other welcome interpretations included a countrified take on The Beatles’ I’ve Just Seen a Face (based on the 1981 bluegrass arrangement Russell cut with New Grass Revival) and the Stones classic Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The latter has settled considerably since Russell lit at match to it for George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangla Desh in 1971, although it still sounded properly righteous last night.

One could argue that Russell should have played more of his own fine songs, even though music from all of his classic Shelter albums cut between 1970 and 1975 was featured. And it was especially curious that the 2010 collaboration with Elton John (The Union), the record that triggered his career comeback, was ignored. But to hear Russell fortify Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s-a-Gonna Fall last night with a tough-as-oak piano blues sound re-asserted his ability to make most any song within his grasp very much his own.

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