They first met in 1970 when John had a career-making residency at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, John opened for Russell for a few gigs in New York, but they lost touch as John’s star rose and Russell’s faded, only reconnecting decades later.
Russell was also recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Sidemen category. This was certainly well deserved. In the studio, he played keyboards on many tracks including The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” Badfinger’s “Day After Day,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Byrds’ cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and even the novelty Halloween song “Monster Mash.” Onstage, he was a crucial part of Joe Cocker’s 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh.
The 69-year-old native of Oklahoma, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shades, a cowboy hat, and long white hair and ZZ Top-worthy beard, gave a stellar concert on Friday night at the venerable Granada, almost exactly two years after an equally enjoyable performance (including most of the same songs) at the much more cramped SOhO Restaurant & Music Club under the cloud of the Jesusita Fire.
Joining Russell were Chris Simmons on guitar, Beau Charron on regular and pedal steel guitar plus mandolin, longtime bandmate Jackie Wessell on bass and Bradon Holder on drums. All sang background vocals.
The show kicked off with Russell’s own rocking song “Delta Lady,” which underscored that in addition to being a noted sideman, he also has written a bunch of great songs for his own solo career, many of which were covered by others. Other self-penned classics on the program were “Lady Blue,” “Dixie Lullaby,” “Back to the Island,” crowd favorite “Tight Rope” and “Out in the Woods” with cool sung phrases traded with guitarist Simmons.
A highlight was Russell’s solo performance of his “A Song for You,” whose lyrics “I’ve been so many places / In my life and time” and “When my life is over / Remember when we were together” carry a heavier weight when sung by the composer more than 40 years after they were written.
Russell also played covers from a variety of genres, including country (“Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”), blues/R&B (“Sweet Little Angel,” “Let the Good Times Roll” sung by Wessel, “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and Ivory Joe Hunter B-side “Kansas City Woman”), early rock and roll (the encore’s “Great Balls of Fire” and “Roll Over Beethoven”), folk (Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”), British rock (The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”), and a popping medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Paint It Black” and “Kansas City.” A common thread was the boogified treatment that these songs enjoyed, giving them that beloved “Leon Russell sound.”
There were also cool performances with fingerpicked electric guitar of Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman Blues” and “Walkin’ Blues” by the ultra-talented Simmons.
Russell was delightfully chatty with the audience — for example, introducing “Wild Horses” by telling that the equally legendary Gram Parsons had “said I should sing it, and so I do.” He also talked about listening to the radio as a kid and starting to play at clubs at the tender age of 14, plus later observing firsthand Dylan’s amazing songwriting craft.
The opening act was the soulful and charming Swamp Dogg, nearly the same age as Russell and looking dapper in a green suit and hat. Swamp Dogg often got up from behind his keyboard and danced as he belted out his songs, which led him to joke that “you have the distinct pleasure of seeing me have a heart attack tonight.”
His set closed with the funky “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” which was reprised in an encore in which he finally took off his jacket to really boogie on down.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.