"Lady Blue" from the album Lady Blue
"Delta Lady" from the album The Best of Leon Russell
If you've never seen the DVD of Joe Cocker's 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, don't wait for Netflix. Call up your buddy with the yeyo connection, or buy the video on the way home and prepare yourself for a display of onstage energy unmatched by touring acts today.
Except, perhaps, those who lived it in the first place. Leon Russell was the glue behind Cocker's band, conducting while simultaneously holding the groove on piano and lending a handful of his own songs to the band's repertoire.
But Cocker was just one of many. Name a star from that era, and Russell likely tickled the ivories at their side. Dylan, B.B. King, J.J. Cale, the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Clapton, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson — they all loved Leon. He even played bluegrass (on piano) with Sam Bush's New Grass Revival.
Russell could have long ago retired, but at 65, he's still recording like an upstart unsigned garage band. With its driving, squint-your-face-and-bob-your-head-like-a-rooster-style funk, his 2006 release, Angel in Disguise, could have easily been recorded in 1972 on a scratchy reel-to-reel. He's still embarking on tours that take him from California to Connecticut to Florida. And that's all this February. You can bet his two-night stop in Charleston will be anything but a breather.
That's because Leon Russell plays it raw. His voice isn't Ray Charles, but it's authentic and pure enough that women still leave comments on video clips of him playing like, "Leon, you need to put a baby inside me," which was posted one week ago on YouTube.
Who knows if Leon will don a 10-gallon top hat and dark sunglasses at the Pour House this weekend? There's no telling. What's guaranteed is honest music that'll make you shake it down and remind you of the pre-MTV days when musical fame still existed without pretension, and sharing a groove was priority number one.
Leon Russell performs at the Pour House (1977 Maybank Hwy., (843) 571-4343) on Fri. Feb. 15 with Cary Ann Hearst & The Gun Street Girls and on Sat. Feb. 16 with the Wyatt Garey Band. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Visit www.leonrussellrecords.com and www.charlestonpourhouse.com for more.