BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
As a few notes of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” filtered through the house sound system, Leon Russell used his cane to step on stage, slipped on a pair of dark shades, held up his hand in greeting and… played.
He slid behind his custom-made digital baby grand, its frosty veneer a match with his mane and cowboy hat, and rolled effortlessly through the musical stew of grimy blues, twangy country and melodic pop balladry that has signaled one of the great careers in music.
Russell, 72, brought his weighty arsenal of tunes – as well as the covers he loves to interpret – to a sold-out Terminal West on Monday. He’ll return Tuesday for another sold-out gig, and, since he joked that he likes to play songs that his three-piece band doesn’t know, might mix up the set list.
Throughout his career, Russell’s voice has been an acquired taste and with age, its nasally cragginess is amplified. But throughout the more than 90 minute set, his piano playing was spry and his intuition for melody impeccable.
Russell is also notorious for playing shows without ever speaking to the crowd. But on this night, he was downright verbose – and deadpan funny.
Stories about marriage and divorce (“One More Love Song”), his Oklahoma roots (Ivory Joe’s “Kansas City Woman”) and B.B. King (“Hummingbird”) were shared warmly. And when, late in the show, Russell unleashed the gospel power of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” his voice noticeably cracked as he dedicated the song to his recently deceased friend, Andrae Crouch.
Sprinkled throughout the selections from Russell’s vast catalog were his reinterpretations of a few classics.
Most worked well – Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” unfurled as a barroom stomper and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” was coated with Russell’s unmistakable squawk, giving the state lullaby a new tone. But the recast of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” didn’t much benefit from its slightly increased tempo and lap steel guitar (kudos, though, to guitarist Beau Charron for his beautifully textured playing throughout the concert).
Russell’s best-known song – and one of the greatest love songs ever written – received no introduction and nor did it need one. Russell’s band had already vacated the stage a few songs earlier, ceding the spotlight to the legend, and when he smoothly launched into “A Song for You,” its opening lines prompted several in the seated crowd to pop up in appreciation.
Whether working with Joe Cocker or Elton John, Russell has always been one of music’s great characters. Considering that he’s booked himself nearly a half-year of dates, he’s also still a dedicated road warrior.
Catch him while you still can.
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