Leon Russell made his debut appearance at Winnipeg’s McPhillip’s Street Station last night (11/1/11) to a packed house.
The legendary piano man started as a studio player in L.A.’s famous Wrecking Crew, and has played with countless big name artists in his 50+ years in the business.
His career, which has seen many ups and downs, was recently revitalized through his collaboration with Elton John on the 2010 album The Union.
The veteran musician took the stage to cheers and applause, appearing much like a charter member of ZZ Top, sporting flowing, long white hair, beard, shades, and a white cowboy hat.
Without a word, the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Famer started into “Delta Lady,” the song which kick-started his songwriting career, when Joe Cocker recorded it and brought Russell in on his 1970’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour.
Though walking slowly with the help of a cane these days, Russell’s fingers still fly, and his distinctive voice was instantly familiar, despite the gravel and huskiness developed over the years – kind of a cross between Willie Nelson and latter day Bob Dylan.
Russell’s tight young backing band is more streamlined than past years, and includes long time bass player Jackie Wessel, Brandon Holder on drums, Chris Simmons on guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron.
The Lawton, Oklahoma native set a pattern, weaving back and forth between his original compositions and an eclectic range of classic blues, country, R&B, and rock n’ roll standard covers, each song receiving the benefit of Russell’s adept arranging skills.
A cover of Buck Owen’s “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” was followed by Russell’s opening track to his 1971 album Leon Russell and the Shelter People titled “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
Russell completely dispensed with theatrics and stage patter, sitting Buddha like behind his keyboard, serving up gems from his solo career such as his “Dixie Lullabye” and “Hummingbird” from his 1970 self-title debut album, intermixed with covers by the likes of BB King (Sweet Little Angel), Ivory Joe Hunter (Kansas City Woman) and Sam Cooke’s “Let the Good Times Roll” (sung by bass player Wessel).
Mid-set highlights included honkytonk style versions of The Stones “Wild Horses,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and The Beatle’s “I Just Seen A Face,” followed by the carnival atmosphere of Russell’s biggest single “Tightrope” and a moody cover of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind.”
An acoustic set featured the lead vocal and slide guitar talents of guitarist Simmons tackling blues legend Robert Johnson, before turning the solo spotlight back on Russell in his best turn of the night, performing the magnificent self-penned jazz standard “This Masquerade” (popularized by George Benson), along with the soulful “A Song for You” from his solo debut album.
The band then returned for the home stretch, which featured an eclectic medley of rock n’ roll classics performed a la Russell including “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Poppa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Paint It Black,” “Kansas City,” and winding up the night with Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Finishing with this tip of the hat to his fellow rock n’ roll legends, the iconic Russell waved to the crowd, picked up his cane and exited, leaving the crowd howling for more.
He never said a word all night, but his songs and musical talent spoke volumes.