There were a lot of hip young bands playing in town on Saturday, including one pretty boy who sold out 7th Street Entry fresh from opening Lorde’s tour. However, the night’s most rocking shows were led by two guys born in the 1940s.
At the Cedar Cultural Center, Oklahoma’s country-soul piano king Leon Russell, 71, played to a sold-out crowd. A continuation of a career comeback that started with his 2010 Elton John collaborative album and his 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, Russell played with the same powerful three-piece band and similar set list to his 2012 shows at the Dakota but fit in better with the rustic hippie-ish vibe and acoustics of the Cedar.
The first 45 minutes of the show rolled with almost nonstop, hard-boogieing verve, as “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” segued straight into his own classic “Stranger in a Strange Land” before a feisty, almost snarling take on Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (more enjoyable than the versions I’ve heard Bob play in recent years). Russell told a few stories between tunes that underlined his unrivaled resume, including one about hanging out with Gram Parsons (which preceded a soulful cover of “Wild Horses”) and seeing B.B. King cry while the blues giant recorded one of the Okie’s tunes (“Hummingbird”). A victim of hearing loss, Russell himself almost came to tears talking about Twin Cities-based hearing-aid charity the Starkey Foundation and their noble efforts in third-world countries.
“They’ve helped me a lot, too,” he said. “I’m not third world. I’m barely in this world.”
Toward the end, Russell took the show way beyond this world with a goosebump-inducing solo-piano version of the gospel traditional “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which harked back to his church roots and put an exclamation point on an already emotionally charged performance.
One of the Twin Cities’ own unsung music vets, R&B/funk singer Sonny Knight – who probably couldn’t have even landed an Entry gig this time a year ago -- was visibly moved as he took the stage in front of a more than three-quarters-full crowd at First Avenue later on Saturday night. In less than a year, the 65-year-old showman fell in with the Secret Stash Records crew, started collaborating with their house band and hit the club scene running as Sonny Knight & the Lakers. He and his young cohorts graduated to First Ave to celebrate the release of their debut album, “I’m Still Here,” songs from which sounded tailor-made to the flashy, revue-style performance they gave Saturday on the big stage.
After opening with the album’s saucy kick-off track, “Jucy Lucy,” the band stuck to some of their funkiest cuts early on, including the horn-driven workout “Sonny’s Boogaloo.” The show came to something of a stunning halt about 25 minutes in, though, as Knight & Co. built up a stormy, slow-burning cover of Kurt Cobain’s favorite Leadbelly song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” with added backup singers Pavielle French and Sarah Witte helping bring a “Gimme Shelter” vibe to the music. The dark mood rebounded into one of the brightest and bounciest jams of the night, the Beatles’ “Daytripper,” which Knight and the Lakers originally recorded for the “Minnesota Beatle Project, Vol. 5.”
Things got even heavier during the encore, when Knight recollected returning from service in Vietnam and struggling to find his way, all while a string quartet – brought out just for the one song – added to the drama behind him. This was the slow build up to the album’s title track and the show’s symbolic finale. Lest there remained any doubt Knight is “still here” -- and still very able able to sing his ass off -- the closing tune also proved a man his age has plenty sing about, too.