Monday, June 05, 2006

The Master of Space and Time

Sometimes explaining my musical tastes to family and friends is like playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon". Such was the case last week as I got ready to attend my first concert since seeing U2 at the Delta Center last December:

"I'm going to see Leon Russell at The Depot Thursday night."


"He played with Joe Cocker in the early '70s."

"Who's Joe Cocker?"

"He recorded 'With a Little Help From My Friends'."

"What's that?"

"That's the song they play at the beginning of 'The Wonder Years'."

No big surprise that I attended Thursday's concert alone.

My introduction to Leon Russell came via my parents' copy of the "Concert for Bangla Desh" album, the benefit concert George Harrison and Ravi "Listen to my 15-minute Sitar Jam" Shankar put together back in 1971. The concert featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo, and even Badfinger, in addition to the organizers themselves.

But for me, the highlight was a ten-minute medley cover of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by this scary silver-haired dude that played the piano. As much as I loved the original Stones version, Leon Russell tore the roof off Madison Square Garden with his version. It was clearly the highlight of the set, in spite of a classic take on Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Clapton on lead guitar.

Leon's long straight hair was silver back in 71', and it was pure white by the time he took the stage in Salt Lake last week. He'd also grown a big white beard and topped the whole thing off with a classic cowboy hat that turned him into a bizarro Country Western version of Santa Claus as he hobbled around on a cane. But even though his legs were withered, he could still play a mad piano.

Coming by myself turned out to be a smart plan. Soon after arriving, I managed to work my way through the club-style venue to a group of tables at the front of the room that were only half-occupied. As the opening act wound up their set, I nudged a middle-aged couple that had a couple of empty chairs at their table and asked if I could sit with them. Initially they gave me a look that said, "who is this strange bald fellow trying to sit at our table? Is he here to steal our t-shirts?" But soon after taking my seat I realized that I probably could have asked them if I could sit on their laps and they would have obliged.

Steve and Ruth were old friends that were all about making new friends that night. I arrived midway through a conversation about Zildjian cymbals and why Mormons are OK with the Da Vinci Code, and while Steve made a quick call to his mother, Ruth introduced herself and welcomed me to the group. Thanks to an above-average knowledge of obscure session band members from the early '70s, I was able to win their trust quickly. They were great folks.

My two new friends were par for the course as far as my typical concert cross-sections went. Since most of my favorite bands had passed their primes before I was born, the median age of the concert attendee I usually encountered was 55+. There were a few patrons my age milling about The Depot, but for the most part it looked like my parent's 35-year high school reunion.

It was this age dynamic that made the concert so interesting. For one thing, Leon and his band--the band was made up of younger-to-middle-aged players--played a pretty tireless set for their ages. About four seconds after finishing a song, Leon would bang out the intro chords to the next track without so much as a nod to his appreciative audience. But far from a token of disrespect, Leon was just continuing a reputation for pounding out a high-energy set that left the audience about as wiped out as the band. Indeed, it was Leon Russell and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band that almost wiped out Joe Cocker.

As entertaining as it was to watch Cowboy Santa bop out "Delta Lady", "Georgia On My Mind", and the fastest version of "Wild Horses" Mick Jagger could ever imagine, the audience was almost as fun to see. For the first half of the set the only people dancing were the odd drunk dudes that would wander to the center of the floor and sway incoherently until their glasses were empty, so in the middle of one song, a loyal fan dragged her husband up front to get a photo of her with Leon. She wandered up and stood at the foot of the stage right in front of Leon's keyboard setup, turning and flaring her arms out like she was posing in front of a zoo exhibit. Leon played on, no doubt rolling his eyes behind his dark aviator shades.

Later another loyal fan curled herself up in the long curtains hanging over Leon's side of the stage and gazed at the Master of Space and Time for about 45 minutes straight. This woman had to be at least fifty years old, but the look on her face told you she felt about fourteen as she stood there within a hop and stretch of her hero.

In fact, the proximity to Leon had me a bit baffled. The table I'd scored was about fifteen yards away from the Master himself, including the distance from floor to stage. It occurred to me that it would be quite easy to take him out with a beer, even with my suspect accuracy, and I was quite glad at that moment that I wasn't a drinker. The headline would have been quite embarassing:


Finally after an exhaustive hour of constant upbeat tunes, Leon said hello to the beautiful Salt Lake crowd and gave his band a break. Everyone left the stage except for his lead guitarist, who stayed on to favor the club with a slide guitar solo. Leon himself stayed at his bench, no doubt to ease his rusty knees. Photo Lady took advantage of the moment and climbed on stage to try to have a word with the Master, but a security guard managed to escort her off stage before Leon had to impale her with his cane. Once the guitar solo was done, Leon cranked out a couple of slow numbers, including one of his all-time greats, "A Song For You".

Then came the big moment. The band came back out on stage, picked up their instruments, and Leon pounded out the opening chords to "Jumpin' Jack Flash". With every bit of swagger and strut as Mick ever put out, Leon more than did justice to the Jagger/Richards original, eventually seguing into a full "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"/"Paint it, Black"/"Kansas City" medley that brought The Depot to a full holy roller peak. As we all came down off our high and gave Leon a standing ovation, he told us he had to go after the next number, a love song, he said, taught to him by an old teacher years ago.

Then Leon ripped into "Great Balls of Fire".

With that, the band left the stage with a wave, and the guitarist came out to sell tour t-shirts in the corner. I stood around for a while, figuring Leon probably wouldn't be coming back out on his cane for any encores. But that was OK. He'd more than done his job for the evening. It's hard to say whether he won any new fans that night. I imagine most everyone there already knew him. There was one girl up front dancing with I guy I figured was her dad who may have been getting her first dose of Mr. Space and Time who couldn't have been more than the 21 years she needed to get in the club, so I guess there was a little bit of torch passing going on.

Leon never did get a lot of recognition even in his prime, so I don't expect a whole lot to change now. He probably doesn't even care. He knows his music will live on as long as we've got "The Wonder Years".