Thursday, January 23, 2014
Concert review: Legendary Leon Russell went gospel to honky-tonk at House of Blues
His garbled voice sounded like Ray Charles with strep throat. And that's a good thing.
DALLAS Leon Russell is the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll, morphing from Phil Spector’s clean-cut sideman in the ‘60s to Joe Cocker’s hippie ringleader in the ‘70s to Elton John’s biker Santa duet partner on 2010’s The Union. He’s got great stories to tell, and thankfully, he shared a few of them Wednesday night at House of Blues.
That’s not always been the case. The singer-keyboardist can be tight-lipped at times, as he showed last year on a bill with Gregg Allman at Verizon Theatre.
But the longer Russell played Wednesday, the chattier he got. He started off telling yarns about being a teen rocker in Tulsa and then hop-scotched across his career with candid tales of Gram Parsons and B.B. King and even a funny bit about veteran Dallas concert promoter Danny Eaton.
Resplendent in colorful Hawaiian shirt, cowboy hat and flowing white beard – but foregoing his trademark sunglasses – Russell sounded every bit of his 71 years. His harsh, garbled voice has always been an acquired taste, but he gave it his all, howling like Ray Charles with strep throat while pounding his white baby grand piano with elegant fury.
He talked about growing up with his ear stuck to a radio that only picked up R&B and Pentecostal stations. Sixty years later, he’s still glued to that same wavelength: Just about everything he and ace backing trio played Wednesday swung with gospel abandon and strutted with the blues.
He sang his most famous compositions, including “Tight Rope” and “A Song For You,” a standard of heartache covered by everyone from Andy Williams to Amy Winehouse. But Russell spent most of the show putting an idiosyncratic touch on other people’s songs, from “Great Balls of Fire” and a jazzy-tonk “Wild Horses” to a bizarre, jaunty rewrite of Bob Dylan’s anti-war ballad “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Like all great musical chameleons, Russell was fascinating to watch as he dared fans to predict his next move.
Another veteran act, Hot Tuna, opened the show with a long and lively set of old-time country-blues. Led by Jefferson Airplane alumni Jorma Kaukonen (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Jack Casady (electric bass), this version of Tuna boasted mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, who brokered a perfect marriage of bluegrass and blues.
There were no shortage of errant notes, but it barely mattered. The show felt like a joyous campfire jam, with the trio sitting in a semi circle and Kaukonen leading the session with a sweet, hushed voice that recalled Jerry Garcia.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic.
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