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Near the end of his December concert at the Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale, keyboardist and vocalist extraordinaire Leon Russell flashed a grin at bass player Jack Wessel, a knowing smile that so much as said Russell owned the audience and knew it.
The crowd was rocking with him, oblivious to any allegations of has-been status. It was one of the moments in a concert that can take away the years and any thoughts that this is another washed-up old-timer trying to make a living off earlier greatness. It was also one of the moments when the astute listener realizes a chasm has been crossed A just as in painting, writing, or any of the "legitimate" art forms, when an artist has done what he is supposed to do and it has worked.
In my book few singer-songwriters rate the term "artist" A Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Van Morrison are certainly deserving. I would be willing to add Leon Russell to that exalted list.
If you have any doubts, plan to attend either of Russell's two reprises Saturday at the Musicians Exchange. At the concert in December Russell put on a show with the sort of energy and enthusiasm a late-teen musician would envy, breathing new life into standards such as "A Song for You" and "Masquerade," creating unique sounds on his keyboard. Sometimes I felt like I was being taken to a dimension where there is no space or time.
When Russell's high-tech instrument, which makes many synthesizers seem decidedly old-fashioned, was loaded in, the Exchange's Don Cohen remarked, "It looks like Southern Bell in there. Completely custom." The next-generation instrument A and Russell's performance A gave his trio (son Teddy Jack Bridges and electric-bass player Wessel) the sound of a sextet.
When Bridges and Wessel left the stage for Russell's solo renditions of "Masquerade" and "A Song for You," Russell, his hair and beard as long as ever, had the walls shaking with symphonic sound. The shaggy pianoman had begun the set with several hard-rocking, R&B numbers that showcased his keyboard virtuosity, and the talents of Bridges and Wessel. Playing an African beaded-gourd instrument, Bridges proved he's inherited well from his father, as he produced complex sounds you'll never hear from a simple drum setup.
To complement the electronic side of his wizardry, Russell sang a version of "Great Balls of Fire" that Jerry Lee Lewis himself would have applauded. In addition to Russell's screaming vocals, his keyboard's sound was that of a grand piano played convincingly A simply and honestly.
That song took him back to his roots in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- and his early association with the Killer. At age fourteen Russell had curtailed his classical music training to begin jamming in local nightclubs, and by 1958 he had spent six months touring with Lewis.
In Los Angeles Russell began his career as a studio musician and arranger, playing on and/or arranging such rock and roll and pop classics as Gary Lewis and the Playboys's "This Diamond Ring," the Byrds's "Mr. Tambourine Man," and Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High." But perhaps his greatest prominence came about with Joe Cocker's 1970 traveling road show and double-live album Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Subsequent records such as Leon Russell and the Shelter People and Carney ("Tightrope," "Masquerade") helped firmly establish Russell as a singer-songwriter-bandleader. And his tunes have been covered by everyone from Ray Charles to Karen Carpenter to George Benson to Freddy King.
Among recent releases by Russell are One for the Road, a double-length album with Willie Nelson, and Anything Can Happen, a collaboration with co-producer Bruce Hornsby. The genesis for the Hornsby-Russell effort came several years ago when Hornsby pointed to Russell as a musical mentor in a Rolling Stone piece.
It's been a long and colorful career, and it's nice to hear that it's not over. Russell can still bring about those cathartic moments that make some music legitimate art.
Leon Russell performs at 8:30 and 11:00 p.m. Saturday at Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 764-1912. Tickets are $18.