One reflection on the ravages of the Grim Reaper is that it offers the opportunity for folks to be reminded of the breadth of talent offered by those on the wrong side of the grass. And what a talent Leon Russell’s was. One of the founding fathers of contemporary American music, Russell got his start in sessions with the Wrecking Crew, that seasoned band of players, gilding the lily of any number of better remembered performers. Next, he took on the task of ringmaster for Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen, thereby inventing the whole milieu of raggedy roots revues.
Thereafter, Russell cemented his reputation producing and playing for and with everyone, from Bob Dylan and George Harrison to most of the Rolling Stones. An early adopter was Elton John, much later able to repay the influence with 2009’s The Union, a record co-credited to each of them, boosting once again the standing of then then-ailing Russell. Seven years later, he was to die in his sleep, a heart attack complicating previous surgery, at 74. No more would he grace the stage in the guise of an Old Testament prophet, bedazzling in his white suit, with his mane of white hair and beard crowned usually by a hat, ten-gallon or top, white too.
A side arm of his career included a series of albums under the nom de guerre, Hank Wilson, wherein he took on the mantle of a country bluegrass rocker, with four albums of honky-tonk music, with another being his mentoring and production duties for funk outfit, The Gap Band; they also backed him on ‘Stop All That Jazz’, in 1974. Another fun fact: his 1978 album Americana was potentially the first sighting of the word, a full 21 years ahead the Americana Music Association coming into existence. So yeah, a whole lot more to him than just “Delta Lady,” “Superstar” and “A Song For You.”
With a body of work stretching to nearly 40 albums, solo or collaboration, studio and live, the problem for a Leon Russell tribute album is what not to cover, and what stones to leave unturned. A Song for Leon truly has its work cut out for it; for the most part, it does proud to both the tribute album genre and the Master of Space and Time himself.
Margo Price, fast becoming the go-to girl for tributes of this sort, kicks it off with “Stranger In A Strange Land,” a sturdy and substantive rendition, which, from the clavinet, massed backing vocals and pounding piano, evokes perfectly the Mad Dogs vibe, Price’s vocal an extravagantly controlled wail. A great and impressive opener.
With a touch more funk than the original, N’Awlinz fairground ambience swapped for the swamps, Durand Jones then applies his retro soul brush to “Out In The Woods” with gusto, his vocal sounding curiously (and effectively) muted, as if caught from another room. In passing, his band, The Indications, show quite what a tight and rhythmic unit they are. Nathaniel Ratecliff, up next, is given “Tightrope.” Possibly wary of the not-dissimilar schtick of Jones, he underplays the song, rather than offer any direct competition, which tends, by default, to reveal the slightly plinky-plonk undercurrent of the song, spinning it out with just a little more greasepaint than it strictly needs.
“This Masquerade” is one of the “bigger” songs in the Russell canon, again, like “Out In The Woods” and “Tightrope,” from Carney, but betraying some of the later tropes shared with Barbra Streisand, for when they co-wrote songs for A Star Is Born. If a bit hokey in the original (#sorrynotsorry), Orville Peck, the masked man of country throwback styles, tries hard to give it some Man In Black gravitas, the orchestra, steel and and twang all very spaghetti western à la Morricone. It works dependent on your mood.
Which may take further stretching as Bootsy Collins and U.S. Girls together tackle “Superstar.” Once the bizarre opening rap is out the way, it settles into a faithfully unusual rendition. Mind you, if that seems eccentric, to proceed straight into the Pixies for “Crystal Closet Queen” seems perverse, there being few who will love both these extremes of interpretation. A straightforward punky thrash, it does credit to neither the song nor the band, however eventually infectious it becomes. (And I like the Pixies.)
“A Song For You” is possibly the best known song written by Russell, especially if you haven’t heard his own version, there being so very many covers in existence. You’ll find many by the Gods of R’N’B, Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway and similar, if also with some sitting decidedly in a slot entitled maudlin and MOR. Monica Martin, the erstwhile PHOX singer, now making waves on her own, eradicates immediately any thoughts of lounge bar crooning, with a show stopping vocal, sultry, soulful and wistfully knowing, the words heartfelt. When the organ slides in alongside the chill of the piano, it is just perfect, making the song even more a gospel lament than the secular ballad Russell originally wrote. The Toots Thielemans-style harmonica solo adds near enough icing to make the edifice tumble, but stays this side of just right, casting the whole in a perfect light.
Bret McKenzie adds a pleasant enough Paul Simon-like luster to “Back to The Island,” that feel further amplified by Preservation Hall Jazz Band as his accompanists. I am uncertain the self same wave effects needed lifting from the original.
Tina Rose is Russell’s daughter, and Amy Nelson is Willie Nelson’s; their two fathers were no strangers to each other, working together often. So it seems entirely apt that they join, along with Jason Hill, for a roustabout version of “Laying Right Here In Heaven,” another song where the shared vocals invest it with a Mad Dogs heft. OK, it strays little, not needing to, from the original. Hell, even the piano solo sounds just like Dad.
A more radical re-interpretation comes for the final track, where Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor strips back “Prince Of Peace” to a more somber reflection, the lolloping percussion contrasting with the rest of the arrangement. Whilst it does build, becoming more redolent of Russell’s style, over the course of the song, the performance feels almost an elegy for the writer, the lyrics an epitaph. Thus tailing the album as efficiently as Price topped it.
A Song for Leon should certainly appeal as much to ears unattuned to Russell as those old lags familiar, with, for the former, now the thrill of exploring the source material. I’d like to hope so.
A Song For Leon tracklisting
- Margo Price – Stranger in a Strange Land
- Durand Jones & the Indications – Out in the Woods
- Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats – Tight Rope
- Orville Peck – This Masquerade
- U.S. Girls with Bootsy Collins – Superstar
- Pixies – Crystal Closet Queen
- Monica Martin – A Song for You
- Bret McKenzie with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Back to the Island
- Tina Rose, Amy Nelson, Jason Hill – Laying Right Here in Heaven
- Hiss Golden Messenger – Prince of Peace