Leon Russell House of Blues June 26, 2013
So, Leon Russell played a show last night at the House of Blues, and being the terrific daughter that I am, I took my dad with me. He's always loved ol' Leon, and some of his best memories are of his old hippie days, hangin' out, smokin', and listening to Leon do his thing.
My dad hadn't been to a Leon Russell concert since the '70s at old Hofheinz Pavilion, and he was stoked to go. I, on the other hand, was stoked to hear his perspective on the show, as I'm relatively new to Leon Russell territory and wanted a bit of guidance and insight. What we ended up with were two generations with two very different opinions of the concert. Here's what happened.
I knew from the moment we walked in that this would be a much different review than I normally write. The word fuck, which I often sprinkle liberally throughout my writing, seemed, well, completely out of place in this one before I even began to jot down my thoughts, thanks to the setup and vibe of the venue.
I had never seen the House of Blues general admission section full of seats the way it was last night. The area surrounding the stage, generally full of folks leaning into each other in an attempt to be as close to the musicians as possible, was instead full of rows of temporary chairs. The GA section was roped off, now surrounding the temporary chairs, leaving little room for walking or standing.
It was a strange sight -- with those GA-imposing chairs, it was much more sophisticated than the normal setup, and I should have guessed that the core audience, a well-heeled, older crowd, would have been less than enthused about having to stand, pressed against the stage, for the entire concert -- but given that I'd never seen it, it threw me off.
Russell took the stage with little fanfare, dressed, of course, in his signature hat and white suit, white beard as epic as always. His backing band, a group of four multifaceted, much younger musicians, filled the rest of the stage quietly.
Leon was quick to launch into his first number -- a medley of some of his more favored hits; in that one quick swoop, Russell had covered "Stranger in a Strange Land," "Out in the Woods," and "Back to the Island" at a tempo faster than lightning, but I was uber impressed with the quality of his voice. For a guy who is in his seventies, the man has still got the chops. I was bordering on mouth agape and the speed and agility that he took the numbers on, until the following happened.
I looked over at my dad, expecting to see delight on his face at hearing the hits he'd been talking about for a week prior to the show, and he looked, well, puzzled. Turns out he wasn't feeling that whole "sped up tempo" thing. One of the reasons he's always loved Leon's music was the way in which he took the time to lay out each note, building the story of the song with not only the lyrics, but the music. It made the story come to life for him, and in overdrive mode, it lost that magic. He couldn't help but feel slighted.
As Russell launched into the next few numbers, I could see the look on my dad's face soften a bit, and he found a bit more swag in his movement, bobbing his head and watching the stage intently. It was quite interesting that this old Leon Russell fanatic was so jazzed about those numbers, given that they were a run-through of the Rolling Stones "Wild Horses," Ray Charles' (and yes, a few other folks' song too) "Georgia on My Mind," and a Beatles cover.
As it turns out, he had good reason to be softening a bit. It was the first time my dad really felt that ol' Leon put himself back into the music, whoever that music belonged to. Despite it being a cover medley, he heard that voice, that time, and that Leon he'd been waiting to hear.
I, on the other hand, was the one bordering on puzzled at that point. Those Stones/Dylan/Beatles songs are all nostalgic for me in the way that my father views Leon's music, and it was disconcerting to hear such a wildly different take on the sorrowful, slow song that is the Stones "Wild Horses."
That trend of daughter versus father, and our completely opposing views on Russell's music, continued throughout the night. It was as though we switched off in our moments of irritation; my dad, with his Russell nostalgia being tested by what he felt was a near-mechanical showing of the songs, and I with my admittedly biased thoughts on his covers.
The one thing we could agree on, though, is what a fantastic storyteller Russell truly is, even if he's not so keen on telling those stories via his music anymore. In between each set of medleys, Russell would turn and address the crowd in this twinkling, damn near magical voice, and tell us some bigger-than-life anecdote about the amazing musicians that he's worked with over the years.
He spoke of the booze, of the music, and of the life he's lived. It was truly like watching a legend in action. Oh, what I'd give to have a beer with that guy and just hear what he has to say about the life of an old rocker.
And what a life he's truly had. Russell, although not quite as large of a household name as some of the other musicians of his time, has had the most amazingly interesting career. He's written songs for some of the biggest artists in the music industry, and he's worked with everyone in between. We're talkin' guys like George Harrison, Elton John, and Willie Nelson, just to name a very short few. The man is a wicked genius, and it was amazing to hear him talk about the times he's had.
As the concert rounded out the night, Russell touched on all the hits, medley-style or not. Well-polished hands were in the air, and folks were singing along (quietly) as he played "Tight Rope," one of the biggest hits he's had over the years. And he removed that pesky white suit jacket to show off his rockin' Hawaiian shirt, much to the delight of the crowd, most of whom were also sporting their Hawaiian digs, presumably in honor of that whole "Back to the Island" hit they know and love.
He settled down at points, too, which I'm sure was a relief to my dad. "Hummingbird" and "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms" were both rad renditions of what he'd played in the '70s. It was in those moments we realized that perhaps he's sped up the classics for a reason -- his voice.
His voice isn't nearly as strong as what it once was, and he struggled to get to some of the notes he once hit. Despite that fact, it's what one would genuinely expect from a guy who's been using that voice for so many years to make such amazing music, and it may not need to be as strong as it once was. He's got a velvet-smooth tone and a magnetic personality that more than makes up for the toll the years have taken, and even when he finally becomes just a nostalgia act, he's up on that stage because he loves making music. What could be better?
Despite our opposing opinions on the show, the one thing I left with was a much clearer understanding of why it is my dad holds this musician in such a high regard. It's not just my dad and his bid for nostalgia, a longing for those moments lost, livin' life back in the '70s, free of responsibility and age.
It's also the fact that if Russell is as strong of a performer as he is at 71, he must have been one hell of a musician back when my dad was standing, mouth agape, at his show at the Hofheinz Pavilion. And even now, it's impossible not to like him and his voice, even when he's somewhat testing my love for "Wild Horses."
He's freakin' Leon Russell, after all.
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Personal Bias: I drove into working listing to a Jay Z, Amy Winehouse, Dropkick Murphy mash-up, so really, what the hell do I know about good music, anyway.
The Crowd: Well-heeled, older, in Tommy Bahama and khakis, all drinking Captain and Coke. At least there was Guinness left for me last night. Usually HOB runs the risk of being out.
Overheard in the Crowd: (To the bathroom attendant, who had probably never dealt with such a tame crowd) "No, honey, I really am 83 years old. I know. I know. I can't believe it either." (There's no way this woman was 83, and if she was, I want to know her beauty secrets.)
Random Notebook Dump: My poor dad left the show, still nostalgic and probably wishing he were a bit younger, saying something to the effect of, "You can never go home."