Meanwhile our long-time FH Buddy Steve Sarley WAS able to attend the Leon Russell show ... and as a lifetime fan of Russell's we couldn't have picked a better suited guy to handle this review.
Take it away, Steve! (kk)
I’ve been a huge Leon Russell fan since 1968 when he released his first Asylum Choir album with Marc Benno. I’ve followed him closely since then and must admit that he is at the very top of my list of favorite musical performers. Being able to see “The Master of Space and Time” perform live at the Arcada Theatre this past Friday night was something I really looked forward to. I’ve seen Russell play in concert a few times in the past, both as a solo act and also as the bandleader for Joe Cocker on the legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour.
The last Time I saw Leon was in 1999 at Lisle’s Eyes to the Skies Festival. He played for 90 minutes and didn’t take any break between songs. It was if he played one, long, hour-and-a-half medley. Of course, he didn’t even speak a word during the entire show. The music was great, but the performance was not what you want when you go to a concert.
After the show, he autographed merchandise that the crowd purchased but he did it in his trailer. His son took the merchandise from the fans and walked it back to Leon who sat in the dark on the bus. He didn’t shake a hand or say a word to anyone.
I learned that Leon is a total loner who may possibly suffer from some kind of issue with personal contact. The only way to interview Leon is to send him your questions via fax and he will return his answers in the same manner. Weird, huh?
That said, I just had to see Russell in concert one more time. The legend is 73-years old and had major brain surgery in 2010 and also suffered heart failure the same year.
Ron Onesti was not in attendance at his Arcada Theatre because he was busy emceeing the big PBS Chicago Legends taping. I hate to admit it, but Onesti’s absence was missed. The guy is so damned likeable, the short time he spends on stage talking to the audience at his shows is almost like being entertained by an extra opening act.
The real opening act was a man named Riley Etheridge, Jr. He plays the acoustic guitar and has a very pleasing vocal style. He was accompanied by a bass player, a fiddle player and a mandolinist. I’m a sucker for mandolin and fiddle, so Etheridge went over big with me, even though I am not a huge fan of the folk genre that his music mostly fell into.
His set ran about 35 minutes and all the songs were very good. The New Yorker really charmed the crowd and even got away with making the mistake of declaring himself to be a New York Mets fan.
During the short intermission, it was hard to miss the fact that Russell’s stage set-up included a big digital grand piano. The last time I saw Leon, he played on a tiny electric keyboard. When he recorded his album with Elton John, “The Union,” Elton made Leon Russell promise to never play the electric piano again. He felt that Leon’s fans deserved to hear his music on a traditional instrument. I guess that Leon keeps his promises.
After a short break, Russell and his band walked onto the stage. Russell uses a cane and moves incredibly slowly. He is not a tall man, but is towering in his white straw Stetson hat. His frame is quite wide. He wore a charcoal gray suit and a pair of dress loafers with a blue Hawaiian-type shirt. You had to realize that this was going to be a different kind of Russell concert because Leon wasn’t wearing his signature aviator sunglasses. I can’t remember the last time I was able to actually see the man’s eyes.
He sat down at his piano and did a rousing version of Ray Charles’, “I Got a Woman.” It sounded great but I was totally blown away at the conclusion when Leon turned to the audience and related an anecdote about meeting Elvis Presley at the MGM in Las Vegas.
He said he had been invited backstage by his fried, James Burton who was Elvis’s guitar player. Upon the introduction, Russell said to the King, “Hello, Elvis. I’m Leon. How the hell did they talk you into making all of those bad movies, anyway?”
I was stunned to hear Leon talking conversationally and telling such an amazing tale. It was the first of the night and it wasn’t to be the last. He talked about making friends with Bob Dylan at The Concert for Bangladesh, recording with B.B. King, how he chose to change his name to Leon Russell from Russell Bridges and a number of other incredible tales. He said that he knew his first marriage was headed for divorce when his then-wife told him, “You know, if your fans knew you as well as I do, they wouldn’t like you either!” Leon was absolutely charming and his stories were mesmerizing.
His band consisted of, Jack Wessell, his bass player and background vocalist for the last 33 years, drummer Brandon Holder and Beau Charron on guitars, pedal steel, mandolin and organ. All three sidemen were extremely polished at their crafts.
Russell played and talked for a little over an hour-and-a-half. The time flew by. Some people consider Russell’s voice to be an acquired taste, but I’ve always loved its uniqueness. At the Arcada his voice was quite strong and actually better than I had heard it in a long time. He mixed his hits with covers of songs that he really likes. He worked some of his classics into versions with new tempos and arrangements that made them sound fresh.
His set list was:
“I’ve Got a Woman”
“Prince of Peace”
“Out in the Woods”
“Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”
“Stranger in a Strange Land”
“Let the Good Times Roll”
“Back to the Island”
Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”
Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Kansas City Woman”
“Georgia on My Mind”
The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
“The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen”
Gospel legend Andrae Crouch’s “He’s Watching Me”
“A Song for You”
“Jumping Jack Flash”
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
Leon stood up after that and waited for the applause to stop. He said, “You know, this is the part where we walk off the stage and then act surprised that you keep clapping. Then we turn around and come back out and play a song to finish the show. Those of you that know me know that I’m not very big on walking. So, let’s just pretend we walked off and walked back on again. He sat down and finished with a rousing rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven.”
On his way off the stage, Russell waved to the adoring audience and the stoic genius actually beamed a huge smile, something that is a Leon Russell rarity, to be sure.
I must report that I haven’t been this pleased to see a show in many, many years and I can’t wait for Leon to come back again. Leon Russell’s show was first rate and I recommend it very highly.
-- Steve Sarley
-- Steve Sarley
P.S. I had to laugh at the end of Leon's show.
He walked off the stage and the lights came up.
The sound system started playing one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs.
I thought of you guys and hoped you had a good time.
Actually we had a GREAT time ... watch for our review tomorrow!!! (kk)