NEW YORK: Didn't Keyboards Used To Sound Cool At One Point? - by J. Blake

Posted on 8/04/2009 by J. Blake

Recently I had a chance to finally see Leon Russell perform live; an artist that I personally consider a living legend.

Born Claude Russell Bridges in Lawton, Oklahoma, the (now 67 year-old) music icon began his career playing piano in the Tulsa nightclub scene at the age of 14. He and his fellow Oklahoma musicians of the time (most notably J.J. Cale and Elvin Bishop) pioneered what is now called “The Tulsa Sound”. By the early 1960’s Russell took his “sound” and talent to California, where he found great success as a session musician. As part of Phil Spector’s studio group as well as on his own, Russell played on some of the decade’s most popular records, including The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece PET SOUNDS.

By 1970 he had branched out on his own as a solo artist, songwriter and producer, recording two collaborative records as well as his own self-titled solo album. He founded the Shelter Record label and managed to keep up his status as one of the industry’s premier sidemen, backing the likes of Joe Cocker on the MAD DOGS & ENGLISHMEN Tour, Eric Clapton on his self-titled first solo album (even co-authoring the Slowhand standard Blues Power), B.B. King on 1970’s INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS and The Rolling Stones on their iconic album LET IT BLEED.

In 1971 his performance of the Jumping Jack Flash/Young Blood medley was one of the highlights of George Harrison’s charity show, THE CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH and that same year he helped revive Freddie King’s career by playing on and producing the first of King’s three albums for Shelter Records, GETTING READY (I highly recommend all three).

Throughout his 50+ year career Leon Russell has produced, written and played for most of the music industry’s elite, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, Willie Nelson, The Band, Johnny Winter and even Frank Sinatra…as well as all the artists mentioned above. He is a true living legend and an artist I have a great deal of respect for. That is why it pains me to say that I found his recent NYC performance, very disappointing.

Russell took the stage at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill in New York City around 8:15pm on Monday July 27th. He was oddly accompanied by the house P.A. blaring U2’s With Or Without You. He and his band opened their set with a medley of Jumping Jack Flash and Papa Was a Rolling Stone, followed by a brief interlude into The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black and an energetic version of Kansas City. The night was filled with interesting covers (such as Sweet Little Angel, Georgia on My Mind, Wild Horses and The Beatles’ I've Just Seen a Face) as well as Russell classics that included Delta Lady, A Song for You and Back to the Island. The band, accompanied by the entire audience on back-up vocals, finished the show with a rock ‘n’ roll medley of Great Balls of Fire and Roll Over Beethoven.

On paper the show sounds great and to be honest the performance did have some redeeming qualities, but as a whole I’d have to say it was a disappointing evening of music. The band was tight, but their “sound” was very cheesy. Russell’s singing voice was never great, but in his old age it has become extremely nasally and difficult to understand. He sat propped up behind an enormous rig that looked like a device that Doc. Brown (from Back To The Future) might have whipped up in his shop. Hundreds of cables hung from the back of the worn metallic case and it was equipped with an Apple laptop and what appeared to be a second CRT monitor. The sound that emanated from this presumably analog piece of keyboard equipment could best be described as a combination of fake piano tones backed by the synth pads used by Van Halen on their 1984 hit single Jump. It truly was cheesy keyboard incarnate. I could’ve sworn that a lot of those vintage analog synthesizers sounded awesome. What happened? Why did his sound so bad?

Unfortunately the band’s equipment didn’t sound much better. They are all clearly very talented musicians, but keyboardist Brian Lee’s keyboard sounded equally as artificial and guitarist Chris Simmons (whose playing I actually found quite impressive) also somehow managed to find a way to give his guitar a cheesy 80’s synth tone. It was mind boggling.

The song selection was quite good, but the way the songs were performed made them all sound pretty much the same and they all sounded like they belonged on the soundtrack for the original Muppet Movie. Another annoying aspect of the performance was the way the band managed to crowbar in the same exact standard descending blues ending on to literally 85-90% of their set list. It occurred so often that it got comical. Even when a song totally didn’t warrant that type of ending, the band somehow managed to tag it on there. I still can’t figure out if it was a brilliant display of musicianship or totally ridiculous. I’m leaning toward the latter.

As I mentioned earlier the band was tight and talented, but in this setting, with that “sound” one can’t help but make comparisons to your average (but good) wedding band…not a band that once featured one of rock’s greatest rhythm sections (bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordan) and backed some of music’s finest artists. It was almost sad.

A clear highlight of the show that I think is worth noting was the band’s tall and gangly guitarist’s completely solo rendition of Robert Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues. Here the Alabama native, Chris Simmons, traded in the cheesy 80’s tone for a meaty distortion and serenaded the crowd with a soulful vocal and tasteful slide-guitar work.

I don’t regret going to the show and though I found it disappointing there were definitely times where I was enjoying myself. I think diehard Leon Russell fans, will be able to overlook many of the problems that I had with the performance, but I wouldn’t recommend this show for the casual Russell or music fan…but then again the majority of the packed house seemed to be enjoying themselves. So if you’re curious definitely go check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved.
Photos courtesy of our very own Nelson G. Onofre

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