B.B. King’s, New York, NY • August 4, 2008
There are so many elements of a Leon Russell show that it’s nearly impossible to clearly put them into any sensible order while they’re happening, so it’s only afterwards, upon deep reflection, that you try to assemble your thoughts and the recent assault on your senses. This is not surprising coming from a true rock icon and an artist whose golden touch has left a legendary mark on every historic project that he has ever been associated with. Leon’s legendary musicianship as well as his attention to detail throughout the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in the early seventies literally put Joe Cocker’s career on the map. George Harrison’s hurriedly assembled Concert for Bangladesh, despite all the celebrities amassed, would not have had nearly the early buzz or long term staying power without Leon’s star-making performance of his “Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley.
As if these accomplishments alone weren’t enough to put him in the Hall of Fame, try adding his highly successful and prismatic solo career of over thirty years, and just to show off a little you could mention some of his most recognized work collaborating and playing alongside such diverse artists as Ringo Starr, Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton, The Monkees, Herb Alpert, The Beach Boys, Ann-Margret, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Dean Martin, Marvin Gaye, Barbara Streisand, The Carpenters and even showing up on Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Halloween staple, “Monster Mash.” The aforementioned list doesn’t even put a dent into his session credentials, but I listed this just to give you an idea of what Leon Russell’s contributions have meant to popular music.
So, that little history lesson brings us to Leon’s most recent appearance at B.B. King’s on August 4th in New York City. Playing to a packed house, Leon and his band of “soul” mates took to the stage around 8 pm and unleashed a 27-song barrage of incredibly well rehearsed and wildly entertaining music that lasted just under two hours and had everyone on their feet either dancing or cheering. Opening with the pounding and immortal chords of “Jumping Jack Flash” then morphing into a Foghat-like boogie, Leon and the boys showcased their vocals on an inspired version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” that helped to set the pace of the evening — one that Leon nor any member of the band would relinquish once all night. With this remarkable assemblage of stellar musicians being tighter than any Jack Benny wallet, Leon performed many of his most cherished songs, like “Delta Lady,” “Hummingbird,” “Back To The Island,” and the gorgeous “Lady Blue” with a new vitality and depth that more than resonated with the seemingly unquenchable audience full of his fans. Always the showman but first and foremost a musician’s musician, Leon differed the focus for a few numbers to help present the numerous talents of the boys in the band.
Bass guitarist and vocalist Jack Wessell was up first and rocked his way through his own foot-stompin’, hand-clapping version of “Let the Good Times Roll.” A few songs later it was lead guitarist and vocalist Chris Simmons’s turn, and his soulful interpretation of “Walking Blues” combined with some stellar Stevie Ray Vaughn inspired guitar work helped to turn up the heat in an already smokin’ house. Brian Lee, the band’s secondary keyboard player and organist, finished off the showcase trifecta with a very touching version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” that gave the audience a much needed chance for reflection and quiescence.
Taking his queue from a rare quiet in the room, Leon took back the spotlight with an intimate version of his very touching 1970s hit, “A Song For You,” that seemed to be a personalized dedication to everyone there. This was an evening where everything worked and even Leon’s cover versions of some better know songs such as The Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Ray Charles’s “Georgia,” and B.B. King’s own “Sweet Little Angel” were showered with applause as thick as the homespun drawl in which they were delivered.
By the end of the show and after a killer closing medley consisting of “Stranger In A Strange Land,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” Leon lifted up the dark lenses of his traditional sunglasses and in turn lifted the spirits of all who were there to look into his eyes. In the seventies, Leon had one of the most piercing stares that would adorn many a record cover and publicity photo. Now, looking over his vast audience of dedicated followers, his glare has seemed to mellow a bit with gratitude and contentment. The old saying that “the eyes are the windows to the soul” has never held so true. Only on this night, that gateway led us to experience the soul, the blues, and the rock and roll…