LIVE: Leon Russell @ The Egg, 2/28/16

Review by Steven Stock

Breaking up with someone you love is hard, but at least Leon Russell got some gorgeous songs out of the ordeal. Russell and Rita Coolidge backed Delaney & Bonnie in 1969 and then were two (of the 43!) members of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” troupe the next year, Coolidge singing and Russell serving as arranger and conductor.

“We were a couple,” said Coolidge years later. “I was living under the Skyhill Drive house where he had his studio and where Joe (Cocker) recorded ‘Delta Lady.’ But it was really too crazy up there for me. I was a Baptist preacher’s daughter from the country who came to California right in the middle of drugs and rock’n’roll. It was just too overwhelming for me, so I had to get out of there.”

“That’s when he wrote ‘Delta Lady.’ I guess he had begun the song before then, but it was kind of a desperate attempt to win me back. He also wrote ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘A Song for You’ – probably the best one he wrote for me, but it didn’t work!”

The songs may not have had their desired effect on Coolidge, but they comprised the emotional core of Russell’s 1970 eponymous solo debut, and over 45 years later their live incarnations worked extremely well, tugging the heartstrings of a near-capacity audience at The Egg’s Hart Theatre as Russell’s headlining set neared its climax.

Russell, who’ll celebrate his 75th birthday April 2, was vigorous and fully engaged from the opening “I Got a Woman” to the closing “Roll Over Beethoven.” His propulsive piano playing (on a custom-built synth-piano white as his hair and Old-Testament beard) contrasted with his laconic Oklahoma-inflected drawl. Russell got maximum mileage out of his three-piece backing ensemble, with the versatile Beau Charron switching from guitar to organ to mandolin to pedal-steel as needed.

Cover versions of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind,” Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Lester Flatt’s “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Kansas City Woman” and Louis Jordan’s “Let the Good Times Roll” comprised a good portion of Russell’s performance. Not a bad list, aside from the dodgy Beatles tune, but I’d trade all of ‘em for a couple of stunning Russell compositions that he rarely attempts, “Superstar” and “This Masquerade.”

“Gram (Parsons) said I should sing this song,” said Russell before launching into a Lasix-enhanced romp through “Wild Horses” with Charron contributing lap steel. Russell also reminisced about working with George Harrison and Bob Dylan on the Concert for Bangladesh, helping B.B. King record his cover of Russell’s “Hummingbird,” and collaborating with the Tedeschi/Trucks Band last year on a tribute to Cocker at the Lockn’ Festival.

Opening act Dave Mason was also at the Lockn’ Festival, singing his signature “Feelin’ Alright” (which Cocker memorably recorded in 1969) with Tedeschi Trucks and assorted guests. His brief set featured a dark bluesy version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and, of course, “Feelin’ Alright” from his tenure with Traffic, as well as covers of two Traffic songs from after he left the band, “Rock & Roll Stew” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Mason also revisited highlights of his solo career, notably “Only You Know and I Know” and “We Just Disagree.”

His guitar playing was excellent, and this stripped-down quartet left more room to stretch than he’d been allotted within the confines of Traffic. A rousing version of “All Along the Watchtower” (Mason played 12-string acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix’s epochal of the Dylan composition) provided a strong closing number.

Mason should consider updating the incredibly cheesy graphics projected behind him. While the photos of old records, former bandmates and Hendrix were fine, the space/time continuum will be jeopardized unless Mason returns his animated “Feelin’ Alright” typography to the Christian youth group he borrowed it from in 1969.

Also, granting that the audience may have skewed rather geriatric, most of us did, in fact, know who we were watching – thereby obviating any need to project “Dave Mason” on the screen periodically. It’s too bad Mason couldn’t stick around Albany long enough to catch the Steven Wilson show at The Egg four days later for a state-of-the-art example of how to use graphics to augment music.

Pete Mason’s review and Jim Gilbert’s photographs at NYSMusic
Excerpt from Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union: “And while his range of covers was a delight, it was his own arsenal of songs that the fans came to hear, and he fired up plenty of them from ‘Dixie Lullaby’ to ‘Delta Lady,’ from ‘The Prince of Peace’ (a perfect match for his always gospel-infused brand of piano playing) to ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.’ Backed by a lean trio – featuring the multi-talented Beau Charron, who played guitar, organ, mandolin and pedal steel guitar over the course of the set – the 73-year-old Russell also stretched from the breezy, tropically tinged ‘Back to the Island’ to the bluegrass standard ‘Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,’ but it was his solo turn on his love ballad ‘A Song for You’ that drew the biggest applause. His sandpapered voice – a soulful dust-bowl howl – is still in damn good shape, and his phrasing has become almost jazz-like over the years. And as impressive as his music was, his wry, between-song storytelling – touching on B.B King, divorce, Gram Parsons, growing up in Oklahoma, the Concert for Bangladesh – indicated that he’s got a future on the lecture/storytelling circuit, too.”

I Got a Woman
The Prince of Peace
One More Love Song
Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
Stranger in a Strange Land
Let the Good Times Roll
Dixie Lullabye
A Hard Rain’s A’Gonna Fall
Kansas City Woman
Wild Horses
Georgia On My Mind
I’ve Just Seen a Face
Delta Lady
The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen
A Song for You
Roll Over Beethoven

Only You Know and I Know
Rock & Roll Stew
Low Spark of High Heel Boys
Dear Mr. Fantasy
We Just Disagree
Look at Me Look at You
Good 2 U
Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave
Feelin’ Alright
All Along the Watchtower

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