Leon Russell is a major musical icon whose unique voice and keyboard stylings were a mainstay at the dawn of FM rock in the late ’60s and ’70s. He appeared on Saturday, November 14th at The South Orange Performing Arts Center and treated the audience to both his still-intact musical chops and fascinating first-hand tales from his long career.
Russell walked out onto the stage with the aid of a cane, bathed in bright white lights that reflected off his white suit and hat, and took his place at a white electronic baby grand piano. Backed by drums, bass, and a multi-instrumentalist named Beau Charron (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin, organ) the band was small but tight and also supported Russell with more than adequate background vocals.
He featured a fair amount of classic r&b and rock and roll in the course of the night, including his opening number, Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” His own resume in music goes back to the ’50s, touring with acts like Jerry Lee Lewis, and into the mid-’60s with appearances on the televised music fest Shindig!. In the ’70s on his own recordings and in collaboration with Joe Cocker in Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Russell became a bonafide top-tier rock star. He also appeared on countless hit records as a studio musician as part of the West Coast’s famous Wrecking Crew.
Russell’s set included the classic covers “I’ve Just Seen A Face”(Beatles), as well as a medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” –” Papa Was A Rolling Stone” – “Paint It Black” – and “Kansas City.” Some of the true highlights of the night were the stories that introduced many of the songs. One historical anecdote concerned Russell’s performance at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh benefit, where Bob Dylan played songs for him in his dressing room at Madison Square Garden and how he was asked to play bass “of all things” during the show. Russell followed the story with Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” He also recounted experiences involving Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Gram Parsons.
Russell did not neglect to perform his own hits including: “A Song for You,” “Hummingbird,” “Tightrope” and “Delta Lady”. He also included the tune “The Ballad of Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” that he had done with the Tedeschi/Trucks Band, as a moving and emotional tribute to the late Joe Cocker. He ended the night with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Opening the show were two young New York based performers that were well selected to be on this bill, singer Chrissi Poland and singer/songwriter Riley Etheridge Jr., both of whom held their own as part of an entertaining and fascinating evening with a legendary performer. Another plus factor for this show was the impressive sound quality in this hall which is somewhat smaller and more intimate a venue than many in the tri-state area.