Thursday, August 11, 2011

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEON RUSSELL - LIVE IN JAPAN

The career resurrection continues, with a fascinating live collection.  I've been a pretty strong fan of Russell's since his early 70's heyday, but I had no idea he had released a live album in Japan only back in 1973.  Usually these semi-obscure albums eventually get released in North America as well (see Bob Dylan's At Budokan).  But this one has remained hidden until now.  This Elton John-fired comeback for Leon has now given us a pretty good studio album with Elton, a cool Greatest Hits (see review: http://top100canadianblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/music-review-of-day-leon-russell-best.html), and now a live album from back in the day.

It's actually from two concerts and time periods.  The Live In Japan proper disc was a 9-cut 40 minute set from 1973 in Budokan.  Added to that as a bonus here is another show from 1971, seven cuts from Houston just as Leon was starting to take off.  For those not already in the know, listening to this will help explain just why he's considered by many as one of the greats.  After leading Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen band and tour, Russell took that big on-stage revue style into his own Shelter People group.  The idea was to put a super band of players up there, including back-up singers, and make it a rock 'n' roll revival show, part preaching, part grooving.  Springsteen didn't invent that.  In Japan, Russell had recently added real gospel elements, including Rev. Patrick Henderson on piano, and the trio Black Grass on vocals.  The show actually started with a gospel song lead by Henderson, until Leon leaps on his piano to play some lead guitar licks.  Then the show goes into Russell's hits (Queen of the Roller Derby, Tight Rope) and the real showman appears.  He's an unlikely rock star and front man, which probably explains why he went back to obscurity for so long.  He certainly was no Mick Jagger,  But listen to the way he leads that troupe on stage, with such feeling on piano, with a funk that wouldn't be out of place in New Orleans.  He inspired you to be in the moment with the music, and it was never about phony rock star poses.

The bonus live set is just as rewarding, with an earlier version of the Shelter People.  Kathi MacDonald is in this group, known to Canadians as the woman who shared the stage with Long John Baldry here in the 1980's.  She takes the lead on Russell's Superstar, or rather the original version of that song, called Groupie.  It became, obviously,  a little calmer when it became a hit for The Carpenters.  There are some other gems from his older catalog, including my favourite, Stranger In A Strange Land, as well as a couple of rock 'n' roll cliche songs that Russell truly made his own, Roll Over Beethoven and Jumpin' Jack Flash.  Now, recent reviews of his rejuvenated stage show report he's doing great live, and if you get a chance, he's even on tour with a legend these days, opening for Bob Dylan.  Hmm.  Maybe they could do a Budokan revisited theme show.

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