February 23, 2008
The Culture Room
Better Than: And old 45 and a Kleenex.
There are very few songs that I’d travel some seventy-plus miles to hear sung live – very, very few. But among that short list is Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” Covered over the years by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, and, perhaps most famously, by Donny Hathaway, Russell’s pliant plea for clemency from the girl he let get away is without question one of the most moving examples of what a pop song can do to man, no matter how tough he pretends to be. Hell, even Willie Nelson, himself no slouch as a sinuously sensitive songwriter, saw fit to take Leon’s song out for a sing.
Which made last night’s Culture Room trek all the more historical – and poignant. No, Willie wasn’t in the house, and Peggy, Dusty, and Donny, unfortunately, are all long gone. But Leon the lion-maned was there alright – and very much here, even if he was not so much now.
Which isn’t to say Russell wasn’t in the moment, mind you, but just that his moment somehow seemed to be stuck in a space and time called yesterday. Maybe it was his backing band, who, with the exception of the wicked quick keyboardist Brian Lee (who, by the way, is sightless), seemed never to go beyond the boogie-blues hokum practiced by decades of standard-bearing bar bands.
Still, that doesn’t mean all Russell’s best moments have passed. His own bearing (white hat, beard, and hair) remains regal, and his voice retains that trademark Tulsa twang. So even the most by-the-book blasting of classics (Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” comes to mind) reveals an inner core that any minute could become transcendent. In fact, when Russell and the band bumped up the BPM to the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” that transcendence nearly hit the fans.
Then it happened. The band left Leon with Lee, and the veteran soul-stirrer sang the song I’d come all this way to hear. Anyone who’s ever lost someone will know what I was feeling, which means anyone who’s ever breathed: that catch in the throat; the bat to the stomach; a skipped beat of a broken heart, all rendered in 25 lines or less. I tell ya, if I would’ve had a beer, I would’ve cried in it.
Could I have done without the boogie-woogie medleys of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Papa was a Rollin' Stone," and "Kansas City,” or "Great Balls of Fire" and "Roll Over Beethoven?” You betcha. Would I have like to have heard the man sing “Superstar” or “High Wire” instead? Without question. And maybe one day Russell will return with nothing but a piano and deliver, all by his lonesome. Till then, though, I can go about my wild life knowing that I had the privilege of standing before a legend and listening to him sing one legendary song. – John Hood
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Personal Bias: Leon Live was my first real rock record.
Random Detail: The crowd didn’t share my dispirit with all the boogie-woogie, and jumped and swayed accordingly.
By the Way: The “Superstar” I mentioned is the same song sung by the Carpenters – and Sonic Youth.