Review: Leon Russell tells his best stories in song at Hart Theater
ALBANY Leon Russell had countless stories to tell Friday night at the Egg’s Hart Theater.
He told a few, like one about his time backstage at Madison Square Garden for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and telling Bob Dylan what songs to play that night. But mostly, he told his stories through his large library of music.
The 71-year-old rock legend talked about his lunch at Jack’s Oyster House in Albany on Friday.
“There were a lot of politicians, I love politicians,” he said in his wise-guy southern drawl hidden behind his dark glasses, long white beard and white cowboy hat. He added that “lawyers were his favorite species.”
He then sang his established cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” with his honky-tonk touch. He followed with Ray Charles’ “Georgia on my Mind,” delivering a faster but somewhat loyal version of the soulful blues classic.
His five-man group was a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll band; it was Russell’s bouncy piano that bent every song into his brand of southern funk, like he did with the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” He’s not a technically complex player — he doesn’t take solos, for example — but his choice of chords and rhythms are unique and consistent.
He’s a subtle man on stage, giving cues to his band with the slightest nod of his head. He seems to disconnect the audience during his song, something hard to do in an intimate setting like the Hart Theater. He warmed up to the mostly filled theatre between songs, but not a lot.
Still, everything he did resonated with this loyal group. If he played once a week, he’d probably still draw a decent crowd.
Songs of note included “(Up on the) Tightrope,” his own hit; Dylan’s “Hard Rain Gonna Fall;” “Kansas City;” and “Delta Lady,” a tune Joe Cocker made famous. One the best-known chapters of Russell’s career is his role in directing Joe Cocker’s famed “Maddogs and Englishmen” years. Unfortunately, he didn’t talk about that.
The band left him to play a few ballads alone at the piano, highlighted by “Magic Mirror,” from his 1972 “Carney” album, and “A Song for You.” The band then returned to join him for his heavy-duty cover of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
Russell’s music is from decades ago, but, as the Egg’s director, Peter Lesser, said when introducing him: “It doesn’t get old.”
Jonathan Edwards opened the show, singing his only gold record, “Sunshine,” as early as the second song. This was a surprise, but made sense when he said between verses, “Oh, it’s that guy.” The crowd sang the chorus, which started, “How much does it cost? I’ll buy it ...” The protest song served to validate him and break the ice. From that point on, the audience relaxed, accepted and then embraced him as the depth of his talent became apparent.
Wearing tight jeans and barefoot, the 67-year-old, with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, played feisty, upbeat songs and a beautiful, half-speed cover of the Beatles’ “She Loves You.” He can captivate an audience, and he did here. He sang a funny song about current radio play and took full credit for the movement to legalize marijuana before singing “Lay Around the Shanty (Put a Good Buzz On).”
For his closer, he sang a beautiful a cappella tune of hope for “dreamers and optimistic fools ... this island earth.”