Monday, July 18, 2011

The Return of the Master of Space and Time: Leon Russell

Leon Russell, The Master of Space and Time, is making a comeback. Last year’s album, The Union, with Elton John, produced by T Bone Burnett (with an accompanying film directed by Cameron Crowe), started the ball rolling and next a set of fifty dates with Bob Dylan should put Russell back in the front of peoples’ minds. For those of us who remember him from the old days, this is a welcome return. Leon has a way about him, a piano sound that is instantly recognizable and a voice ... well, more about that later. First, Sound Academy.

I’ve never been to the Sound Academy night club in Toronto before but driving in from Hamilton my wife and I were struck by a number of things. It’s simple to get to, off the Gardiner Expressway, onto Lakeshore, down Cherry Street, across the bridge and to the end of Polson Pier. It is a beautiful setting. On this clear evening, with the sun sparkling on the water, sailboats by the dozens on the lake, planes coming in for a landing at the Toronto Island airport, the ambiance couldn't be better. We sat on the deck with a club soda, soaking in this ambiance, when all of a sudden it hit us. “What is that smell?” There’s a transfer station right across the way, so the smell of garbage hangs over the place. Too bad, everything else about the venue is nearly perfect.

Once inside, seating is at a premium, but bars are readily available. There were four actually, three inside, and one outside on that deck, and the crowd this evening made ample use of them. The doors opened at 8pm on the dot, and by 8:10 all the tables were occupied, so we ended up sitting on a couch at the back of the room. (I’m getting a bit old for standing all night). Although, for this show, everybody was in the same age bracket! We spent 50 minutes watching the crowd, and strangely, at least five would-be Leon Russells were in attendance. The long grey hair, flowing into long grey beards, on men of a variety of heights and weight classes made it seem like a casting call for a new Todd Haynes film. This was especially funny as a couple of them bought T-shirts at the merch counter, and appeared to be wearing their own image on their chest!

Paul James
At 9:00 the stage announcer presented the Paul James Band. James has been a fixture in Canadian clubs for many years, he told us about backing Bo Diddley in the early 70s, but while his guitar playing has grown, his stage presence hasn’t. He claimed to have always wanted to be “an entertainer” but his one trick (spinning like a top while playing the guitar behind his back) was fun the first time, by the end of his set we were happy to see this pony put back in the corral. Maybe if he’d cut his set by two songs it would’ve helped.

It was well after 10pm when the curtains opened and a blue light outlined two guitarists on the left side of the stage. Then a drummer took his spot, and a bass player, and finally a tall Oklahoman wearing a white suit and a 15 gallon cowboy hat. He sat behind a keyboard array and began to play. Beginning with “Delta Lady” and blending through “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” into “Stranger in a Strange Land” Leon Russell took control. The crowd had started to grow as some younger folks drifted in during James’ set and now the room was heaving with people. We at the back had to stand to see, although there is a 40” flatscreen TV with closed circuit images for convenience. 

Leon Russell (Photo by Lee-Ann Wylie)
After the opening medley, Leon removed his white jacket to play the rest of the night in shirtsleeves. His shock of white hair/beard under the sizable white hat made him iconic, sunglasses covering his eyes, he never seemed to move, sitting bolt upright and hitting the piano keys with a massive attack. The sound was muddy. Muddy? I wandered through the hall to make sure it wasn’t just our location. But when he sang, the sound had a harshness, too much top end. When he didn’t sing, the sound was excellent. You could hear every part of the band. And what a band they are. Jackie Wessel on bass and Brandon Holder on drums are a rhythm section to behold. They kept the music rooted even as the volume wanted to blow it away. Guitarist Chris Simmons showed both sensitivity and style in his solos, and Beau Charon was masterful on keyboards, mandolin and rhythm guitar, he even matched Simmons during a twin lead solo later in the night. It was Russell’s piano, though that set the tone for every song.

The band left the stage except for Leon and Simmons. Russell introduced his guitarist who “play[ed] a couple of blues numbers.” This was fairly authentic acoustic blues, but played on an electric guitar, a little Robert Johnson for the people. As Simmons switched guitars between songs, Leon tinkled the ivories for some transitional music. Then the band was back for “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” and his famous “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” medley (memorably performed at George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh), only “Youngblood” has now been replaced with “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Either way it works.

Leon’s between song patter was a surprise, he came across as humble and honest, telling stories of playing in nightclubs in Oklahoma Brandon Holder on drums are a rhythm section to behold. They kept the music rooted even as the volume wanted to blat the age of 14, watching Bob Dylan write songs on the fly in the studio, and playing as a session man with the Wrecking Crew back in the day.

Master of Space and Time? Well, the evening flew by and apart from the minor annoyance of limited seating, and the questionable vocal mix, I’d have to say that Leon Russell’s mastery of his instrument, his songs and band, he took us to a very special space. Great show. His tour continues into the US starting on July 24 with a concert in New Braunfels, Texas (he performs with Bob Dylan).

-- David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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