I was just 16 when I first saw Leon Russell in concert and it was like seeing the Wizard of Oz. It was May 7, 1970, and he was leading Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen at The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. A girlfriend’s mom was working the box office, so we didn’t need a ticket.
Cocker was the “star” of course, but anyone paying attention knew it was the man behind the curtain, or rather the keyboards, who was in charge. They called him the Master of Space and Time and Russell was clearly the ringmaster of that psychedelic, blues-rocking soul circus, a Stax Revue on acid. Backup singers, horn sections, folks just hanging out, everyone moving around the stage in a wild party atmosphere. The closest thing to that experience would be when George Clinton launched his P-Funk Mothership a few years later.
The stage movement was chaotic, but the music was right in the pocket. Russell was already a legend in LA studios, a member of the Wrecking Crew who’d played on hundreds of records, literally the soundtrack of Baby Boomer lives, including “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He’d written many of those hits, including “Everybody Loves a Clown” for Gary Lewis & The Playboys, for which he also served as musical director. Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time, but you didn’t need a discography to know this guy was special.
When he went out on his own - and leading that band for Delaney & Bonnie and Cocker was his extended debutante ball - he brought it all together, mixing rock, R&B, country, jazz. It was a sound, a style, a genre that the great Atlantic Records legend Jerry Wexler (who also coined “Rhythm & Blues” in the late ‘40s) called “swamp”. Today, we’d call it Americana, but Leon Russell was doing it decades before it had a name.
You can hear it on that live Delaney & Bonnie record with Eric Clapton (that was the band Clapton ditched Blind Faith for, and the band that he formed Derek & the Dominoes out of) as well as Cocker’s legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen live album and DVD. But you heard it best in Russell’s own records on his Shelter label. His debut featured almost every major name in rock, members of the Stones and the Beatles, Clapton - everyone played on his debut and since Leon was producing, this was one superstar jam that actually worked. He also served as musical director for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh, the granddaddy of all those mega-benefits to come, from Live Aid to the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy show.
I’ve seen him now and again in the decades since, touring in much smaller combinations. Then, a couple years back, when I was writing a piece on bassist Dennis Crouch for Bluegrass Unlimited, Dennis told me he was going to play on a T-Bone Burnett-produced album with Elton John and Russell. That was The Union, a project that brought Russell back to the music press, bigger venues and the late-night talk circuit, where his love of soap operas occasionally surfaced (though one would have thought the Mad Dogs & Englishmen days would have provided enough melodrama for a lifetime).
But the point is, there are darn few musicians who changed everything. Leon Russell is one of them. But a Leon Russell show isn’t just a history lesson.This guy’s still got it.
Now, all that alone would make his Bluegrass Underground appearance an event not to be missed. But when New Grass Revival singer/guitarist Pat Flynn is leading an all-star acoustic band behind Russell, that makes this a reunion that any lover of bluegrass or newgrass would trade vital organs to witness.
And if you’re excited, you’ve got nothing on Flynn. When we spoke a couple weeks ago, he sounded like a kid, as he spilled out the Russell history. And he was a kid when he first became aware of Russell back in Southern California.
“I grew up in LA and it was my desire to be a session player when i was younger,” Flynn said. “People like Larry Knechtel, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine, Leon - growing up in Los Angeles I knew who they were; they were my heroes, my mentors.”
When he met Russell back in his New Grass Revival days, Flynn had a lot of questions. One of them about the famous photo from the Bangladesh concert in which Russell, a master keyboardist and guitarist, is playing electric bass with Bob Dylan. “And he told me, ‘Well, Bob for some reason always thought I was a bass player. And every time he ran into me he said , ‘Where’s your bass?’ And he said it to me that day, so I just grabbed a bass and played with him.”
NGR was Russell’s regular backup band for years. It started with the original lineup of the band, but the grind of touring on that level burned out bandmembers, and Bela Fleck replaced Courtney Johnson, while Flynn replaced Curtis Burch. NGR alumnus John Cowan survived and he will bring that amazing voice to the BGU stage as part of the group behind Russell. On banjo is Butch Robins, known to traditional bluegrass fans as Bill Monroe’s banjo player for four years starting in 1977, but he was also a bassist in NGR. He’ll be on banjo at BGU.
Flynn says Russell will be doing some of his bluegrass and the country he recorded as “Hank Wilson,” including his funky arrangement of “Columbus Stockade Blues,” and unique versions of “Footprints in the Snow” and “Roll in My Sweet baby’s Arms,” as well as Russell’s signature classics.
Flynn has been busy as a sessionman, performer and producer and had been working with Michael Martin Murphey, but he got back with Russell when the latter was interested in an acoustic project. Flynn, who started on electric guitar, also plays Telecaster in Russell’s electric band.
Russell remains arguably the most influential rock pianist after Jerry Lee Lewis, his keyboard disciples ranging through several generations. Elton John was among the first (just listen to his earliest albums as well as The Union), and Russell played a major role in his career, hiring a then-unknown John to open his tour in 1970. Some old bootlegs from those shows survive, including some jams with both future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Bruce Hornsby also readily cites Russell as a prime source and often plays his “Dixie Lullaby,” and Diana Krall is the latest to sing his praises.
“The spectrum of people he’s inspired is just amazing to me,” Flynn says. And, if he was a fan before, reuniting with his old hero and boss has only increased that.
“Night after night onstage, I’m watching this guy play the piano like a freaking rock, his tempos, the innovations in his playing. You'd better come prepared to play with this guy
because he lays it down so hard and so solidly and his singing is brilliant. Every night the energy there is astounding. I’m energized by it every single night.”
You can see what Flynn is talking about at www.musiccityroots.com, which has a stream of the Jan. 9 Leon Russell appearance in the Archives section. The Russell segment begins around 1:53 into the show.
Now all that would be more than enough reason to make the pilgrimage down to the Volcano Room. But this is Bluegrass Underground’s taping weekend, so Saturday you also get Michael Doucet & Beausoleil, the “band from Louisian’,” that did more than any other group to fuel the Cajun/Zydeco craze that cranked up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and continues today. Beausoleil is why folks in Boston and Seattle know the meaning of “Fais Do Do.” They were Mary Chapin Carpenter’s backup band for her hit, “Down At the Twist and Shout “ and even got a shout-out in the lyrics. Doucet walks that fine line between hardcore traditionalist and innovator, bringing new sounds to Cajun music at the same time that he has helped bring many of the early greats of Louisiana music back into the spotlight.
Longtime BGU friend Alison Brown will be returning to Cumberland Caverns, this time with her progressive Alison Brown Quartet. With her award-winning success running Compass Records it’s easy to forget just what a superb banjo player she is, whether it’s hard-driving breakdowns or complex melodic jazz. In case you’ve forgotten, she will remind you.
And finally, another iconoclastic instrumentalist fills out the bill in the new-talent-to-watch spot. Cellist Ben Sollee rocked the world of anyone lucky enough to see him at Music City Roots a few months back. If you missed it, now’s your chance.
And if you couldn’t get tickets, don’t worry, it’s all coming soon to your TV as part of the new season of PBS’ Bluegrass Underground, as well as on WSM’s weekly radio show (Saturdays at 5 p.m. CST).
But like a 16-year-old kid I once knew could tell you, there’s nothing like being there in person.