He looks like a refugee from ZZ Top, with oversize Elvis Presley sunglasses, Hank Williams Jr.'s straw cowboy hat and Jimmy Buffett's Hawaiian shirt, sitting Buddha-like behind a counter of keyboards, computers, amplifiers and the wires that connect them.
When he plays his electric piano, his fingers move but his elbows don't. When he sings, his moustache moves but his face is as expressionless as his body is motionless. His music is a distinctive sound that you can find only in the intersection of Rock 'n' Blues Avenue and Country-Gospel Road.
Leon Russell, one of popular music's great enigmas, has been saved a time or two by the Lord, but the 70-year-old's career was resurrected two years ago by Elton John.
The British piano man lit a fire under his idol by making a duet album with him, getting him on "Saturday Night Live" and inducting him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How do we send a thank-you note to Sir Elton? Anyone who saw Russell Tuesday night at the Dakota Jazz Club certainly would want to.
Even though Russell was playing the same old repertoire he's offered for decades, it seemed like a whole new Leon at the jam-packed downtown Minneapolis club. The old pro talked more after the first song than he's talked in all his Twin Cities performances in the past decade combined.
He made jokes about a jazz club needing to hire a hillbilly musician to fill the place. He mentioned three great things about Minneapolis: Starkey Hearing (he uses their hearing aids), Prince ("I was told Prince had 20 tailors on staff. That guy's serious about show business. I have a roadie and a bus driver.") and the Mall of America ("I like to go there myself"). He told funny stories about B.B. King, Bob Dylan and his own ex-wife.
The much-welcomed conversation, as much as the music, made the 90-minute performance memorable. The Oklahoma native focused on the heyday of his career, skipping his Elton collaboration ("The Union") and his early years as a hotshot Los Angeles studio musician (he worked on many Phil Spector sessions, wrote hits for Gary Lewis & the Playboys and played on Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind"). But Russell paid tribute to some stars he's performed with, by Dixie-ing up Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (with a slightly Dylanesque vocal delivery), taking the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" at a full gallop and re-imagining the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face" as a gospel boogie.
Backed by four young men who, like their boss, sported hats, beards and shades (save for one glasses-less guy), Russell offered many songs identified with him, including a gospel rockin' "Delta Lady," the ballad with a bounce that is "Tight Rope" and a solo but synth-accented reading of "A Song for You." Too many tunes had the same dynamics, and too often the band -- especially the heavy-handed drummer -- was loud enough for an arena. But Russell's drawl-meets-slur voice, pounding piano and Southern charm were just what Sir Elton ordered.
Set list: www.startribune.com/artcetera
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