by Nick McCabe – Front Row Photo
Leon Russell nailed it again at Harrah’s South Shore Room at Lake Tahoe. There are few artists who I want to see every chance I get, but Leon is in that small group. Much to my dismay Leon’s road manager told us that there would be no photo passes for this show. That was a first in all his shows that I have requested. As upsetting as that was to hear, it certainly didn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy seeing the show and sharing my experience with you, so here I am!
Since I didn’t have to concern myself with taking pictures we got there a little later than we normally would, and I remembered one of the reasons it’s wise to get to Harrah’s early. Limited parking! After about 15 minutes we found a spot in a remote corner of the parking lot and headed in. There was a looong line to get in. We walked in to the theater as Leon hit the stage at exactly 7:30.
In the last couple shows I’ve shot over the last 5 years he had a collection of keyboards, cables, a microphone, and a laptop in front of him. All making it very difficult to get a flattering picture. This time he had a beautiful white grand piano with monotone flames panted on it as well as the logo for Starkey Hearing Technology (his preferred supplier). Although I couldn’t get a good look at it, it did have a pair of large speakers and a laptop facing him, as well as controls for an electronic piano / synthesizer. These were set in the piano in a way that made them almost impossible to see from the audience. Whether it was a hybrid, or just a beautifully crafted synthesizer, I could not tell.
He kicked the show off with I Got A Woman by Ray Charles, and the crowd was into it immediately. Right after the first song he turned on his stool to face the audience and took a minute to talk to the audience, telling us a story about meeting Elvis and being somewhat embarrassed that he asked Elvis how he wound up in all those awful movies. I’ve read that Leon is doing this more these days at the urging of his wife who told him he needs to talk to his audience. Not only did he talk a lot to us, he never put on his dark glasses. NEVER! That’s unheard of in my experiences. As a photographer I’m always hoping for the momentary opportunity to catch the eyes of a performer who always has their dark glasses on. Did I mention that there were no photographs allowed? I didn’t even have my cell phone with me.
He has a coarse, gravely voice that sounds like it has sung a million songs.
Leon Russell has been performing professionally for almost 60 years having started singing and playing in Oklahoma bars at the age of 14. He has a coarse, gravely voice that sounds like it has sung a million songs (which it probably has) and he stays in tune no matter how demanding the note. His fingers moved effortlessly across the keyboard as he pounded out songs like Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Tightrope (his first #1 hit), and Jumpin Jack Flash, and then they floated delicately along the keys on tunes like Back to The Island, Georgia, and Magic Mirror.
As I mentioned earlier, he’s talking more in his shows these days. I feel that it’s important to find a balance in a show as a performer between performance and connecting with your audience on a human level. He shared stories about talking with Bob Dylan backstage at George Harrisons Concert for Bangladesh (everybody else was afraid to go up to Bob) – Moving to California at 17 to get into advertising and ending up playing with The Flying Burrito Brothers – Having a back and forth, mildly confrontational conversation/musical encounter with BB King, plus more.
It was a wonderful evening of music and conversation. I just wish I could share images of it. After the show I bought his latest CD, Life Journey. As he puts it, it’s a record of his musical journey through life. I was moved by the liner notes where he addresses his mortality in a very frank fashion (Leon is 73 years old). In part, this is what he says:
As I near the final exit of my journey…
“As I near the final exit of my journey, I feel it would be nice to mention some of my teachers and anti-teachers in the small piece of spacetime, which is my life. There are those who gave me great gifts of knowledge and love, encrusted with diamonds and gold, and asked for nothing in return. There are those who signed my work, after having nothing to do with its creation, and demanded their royalties. We’re only human…” This was written in 2012.
What a guy. I have never met him, but I love him dearly. I see him as a true American treasure. Leon’s band consists of Brandon Holder on drums (I shook his hand), Beau Charron on guitar, mandolin, steel guitar and keyboards, and Jackie Wessell on bass guitar, upright bass and vocals. Although I failed at documenting every song he played, here’s an almost complete set list.
I Got A Woman
One More Love Song
Rolling in my Sweet Baby’s Arms
Let The Good Times Roll
Back to The Island
A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall
Kansas City Woman
I’ve Just See a Face
His Eye Is On the Sparrow
Song For You
Jumpin Jack Flash/ Pappa Was A Rolling Stone
(encore after fake exit)
Roll Over Beethoven
…and the beat goes on.