Where: Yoshi's Oakland
and sings 'A Song for You'
of life at the peak of the rock mountain
Leon Russell is a piano player, songwriter, performer, and an amusing raconteur. On August 17, 2015, at Yoshi's in Oakland, I got to experience all of the above.
My first memory of Leon Russell was as the piano player giving us those wonderful honky-tonk keys on Joe Cocker's 'Delta Lady' and 'The Letter.' But he has also written some of my favorite songs: 'Delta Lady,' 'This Masquerade,' and of course the well-loved 'A Song For You,' which Elton John has described as an American classic. We were treated to most of these and many others at Yoshi's, with Russell and his piano front and center, but backed by a small but very tight band of multi-instrumentalists.
Any artist with Russell's talent and longevity has stories. And Russell the raconteur sprinkles his memorable set list with some choice snippets from his life. After a rousing version of Ray Charles's 'I Got A Woman,' he told us how he had been introduced to Elvis by guitar player James Burton. He was so starstruck that all he could say was 'Why'd you make all those terrible movies?' He couldn't remember Elvis's answer, but it taught him to be understanding of his own fans' sometimes awful questions.
Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Russell naturally has some country in his blood, and his rendition of the bluegrass standard 'Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms' is perfect for his piano style, and multi-instrumentalist Beau Charron switched from guitar to pedal steel for the full-on country effect. Russell was asked by George Harrison in 1971 to join him in the Concert For Bangaldesh where he actually played bass guitar for Bob Dylan. His raspy voice adds a certain poignancy to Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall.'
Having played with most of the great bands of the 1960s and '70s, Russell has a rich catalog of other people's songs to mine. His versions of the Rolling Stones 'Wild Horses' and 'Jumping Jack Flash' stand up there with the originals, and he also chose to give us The Beatles 'I've Just Seen a Face (Falling, Yes I am Falling).'
Some of the best-known images of Russell are on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker. There, he wears this enormous stovepipe hat. Well, of course there is a story behind it. Apparently Gram Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers gave it to him, and told him it used to belong to Al Jolson. Unfortunately, it got sat on at some point in the tour, and sure enough, inside it was the name Al Jolson.
Russell's band on this tour features really exceptional musicians. Jack Wessell has been with him for more than 30 years and also contributes backing vocals. Brandon Holder on the drums also adds vocals. And Beau Charron switches between more instruments than you can shake a stick at – guitar, mandolin, lap steel, keyboards, as well as backing vocals. They all played and sang their hearts out on Russell's 'Hummingbird,' which was a hit for B.B. King, then finished off the band set with a rousing 'Delta Lady.'
But then the band faded away and just left Leon Russell alone with his white hair, his hat, and his piano. He treated us to 'Sweet Emily' and 'Magic Mirror,' but to a roar from the crowd at the first of two sold-out performances, he gave us his lovely 'A Song For You.' There's something about hearing a classic song which has been covered by The Carpenters, Ray Charles and Amy Winehouse, amongst others, performed by the writer, and Russell gave it his all.
After a standing ovation, the band came back and rocked the joint with a medley of 'Jumping Jack Flash,' 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone,' and 'Kansas City.' And with an encore of 'Roll Over Beethoven' Russell had cemented his reputation as the pre-eminent purveyor of piano-based rock, country, blues, gospel and soul. And Yoshi's, with easy parking and excellent sushi, is a great place to see an act of this caliber in an intimate, close-up setting.
Rock on, Leon.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at email@example.com