Toward the end of his 90-minute set at Charleston Music Hall on Thursday night, Leon Russell told the crowd, “This is the part of the program where we’re supposed to walk off the stage, then unexpectedly return, play a few more songs. Those of you that know me know that I’m not very crazy about walking.” He paused a beat and grinned. “So if you just pretend that we walked off the stage…”
Yep, Russell knows that he’s about the same age as your grandpa, and it wasn’t the first time he’d made a joke at his own expense along those lines. He related a story about George Harrison inviting him to join the roster of the Concert for Bangladesh benefit up in New York City. In this story, set backstage in a Madison Square Garden dressing room “big enough to put in a hockey rink or have a tractor pull,” Russell strikes up a conversation with an unnamed folk singer whose songs could run to “60 or more verses. Really. And he remembered ‘em all. Not me, though. I have to have this prompter in front of me.” He wags his head at the laptop open on his piano, and there’s another upward twitch of his famous beard indicating there’s a grin somewhere under there.
Russell and his touring band (bassist Jackie Wessel, drummer Beau Charron, Brandon Holder on pedal steel and guitar) gave their Charleston audience a roadhouse show. Music to dance to. Plenty of boisterous rock 'n' roll boogie and some get-hold-of-your-sweetie slow dances like Russell’s cover of “Georgia On My Mind.” Sandwiched in, a handful of medleys that pulled together everything from stalwart “Kansas City” to hits from Russell’s buddies. The Beatles “"I've Just Seen a Face” and the Rolling Stones “Jumping Jack Flash” strode across the 88 keys of Russell’s flame-pinstriped white piano like the chart-topping legends that they are.
Did Russell take us "Back to the Island"? Yep. And he's still master of that "Tightrope," too. And with his definitive crowd-pleaser, "A Song For You," he absolutely scored.
Two-thirds of the way through the evening, Russell gave his bandmates a break and played solo. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” came across sweet and strong as ever. Russell dedicated a beautiful rendering of the classic “His Eye is on the Sparrow” to the late Pastor Andraé Crouch. He concluded the mini-set with a cut from his 1972 album “Carney”, playing the lyrical “Magic Mirror," a message that is redolent of the era in which it was written and newly relevant in these changing times. Days of the future passed, indeed. The artist is in a position to have seen all our current turmoil once before.
So yes, Russell doesn’t appear to mind being your grandpa’s age. But that may be all the two have in common because unlike Russell, your grandpa probably isn’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.