Stranger in a strange land

Before tonight, the last time I saw Leon Russell perform was at the old St. Paul Civic Center (now demolished) in 1976 or 1977; Firefall was the warmup act and Leon played to a house that couldn’t have been more than half full. My friend Scott Sansby, who had anchored the rhythm section on drums for Leon’s wife Mary McCreary on her debut album and subsequently toured with her, wangled me a backstage pass.
Mary was performing with Leon and great with child at the time; Leon tenderly escorted her on and off the stage. Among the hangers-on that night was Gary Busey, then just another one of Leon’s unknown Oklahoma friends. I remember hearing that Busey had just finished filming a movie in which he played Buddy Holly. Leon had been touring nonstop behind a succession of hits to the point where his value as an act had eroded considerably by the time I saw him in St. Paul, and I lost track of him thereafter.
Tonight Mr. and Mrs. Rocket joined Mrs. Trunk and me in the good fortune of catching up with Leon at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, one of the finest jazz venues in the country. How did Leon end up at the Dakota? Owner Lowell Pickett told me he’d gotten a call from out of the blue offering Leon’s act for one night.
We saw the first of Leon’s two shows at the Dakota tonight. Leon looked slightly older than Father Time (as in the photo below), though he sounded great and the three-piece band backing him on piano cooked with gusto. Leon and the band were incredibly tight. In addition to the band, Leon was accompanied by two of his daughters on vocal back-up, one of whom I’m sure is the child Mary was carrying when I last saw him perform. They too sounded terrific. (Click here for biographical background and photos of the band.)
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When Leon emerged from his status as a premier studio musician to front his own act in the early ’70s, it was impossible to miss the quality of the writing he brought to compositions like “Delta Lady,” “Superstar,” “Tightrope,” and “A Song for You.” He was special, though his star seemed to fade almost as rapidly as it had ascended. I had the impression that he was something of a soul-man wannabe as a performer, however, not entirely sure of his own voice. Seeing him tonight, I now think I was wrong; I missed what he was up to.
Former Byrd and Flying Burritos Brother Gram Parsons dubbed the union of rock/country/soul music that he sought the Cosmic American Music. Tonight Leon dug deep into the vein of the Cosmic American Music, beginning the set with Bill Monroe’s “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” continuing with his own “Stranger in a Strange Land,” moving on to Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and Ray Charles’s “I Believe To My Soul,” with his daughters channelling the Raelets behind his vocal on the latter.
In all, Leon performed three Charles numbers, two Rolling Stones numbers (plus a vamp on “Paint It Black”), one Jimmy Reed via Elvis Presley (“You Got Me Runnin’”), one Carter Family number (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), and one Temptations (“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”).
Of his own hits, Leon included “Back to the Island,” “Delta Lady” and “A Song For You,” but the show was hardly an oldies act. This was the work of a vital performer in touch with the soul of the Cosmic American Music. He continues his tour on Tuesday in Duluth, then next month in California, Florida and Colorado. (Click here for the schedule.) If you can catch him, don’t miss the opportunity.

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