Leon Russell at The Rhythm Room on 7/6/10

"In all the times he's played here, I think he's said maybe three words to me," Bob Corritore, proprietor of the Rhythm Room mused last night about Leon Russell, who literally rolled into the Phoenix blues bar last night (Russell piloted a Rascal Scooter off the tour bus) to deliver a set of funky soul, honky tonk and gospel pop. 

Though he may be notoriously reclusive, the man didn't fail to connect with his audience.

"I think he likes to get up there and give it his all on stage," Corritore continued. 

The packed house testified to Russell's consistency; all sweaty, happy old folks crammed shoulder to shoulder. I was literally farted on by one guy, who sheepishly turned away when he realized I noticed his stench, as patrons shouted drink orders at the Rhythm Room's overworked bar-staff and Russell's band of young hired guns fired out a greatest hits revue that focused less on Russell's own songwriting than I expected, confirming the axiom I heard exchanged between local tastemakers  DJ Shane Kennedy and DJ Dana, out on the patio: "What do kind of music do people want to hear? Music they already know." 

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Russell delivered exactly that, opening with a funky take on "Jumping Jack Flash," and segueing into "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."  Russell seemed in decent health considering he underwent brain surgery earlier this year.  He sat mostly inanimate, perched behind his massive keyboard rig, complete with a Mac laptop loaded with lyrics. 

With his trademark flowing white beard, sun glasses and cowboy hat, Russell still cuts an imposing figure, though his tacky tropical shirt didn't do much for his "super bad mother fucker" image. Neither did some of the keyboard sounds. In addition to a beautiful straight piano tone, Russell indulged in some Muzaky synths sounds, none of which served to help cement Russell as the timeless performer he could be.

Unfortunately, his back up band didn't help either. Out on the patio after the show one disappointed show-goer griped to me, "I wish the band hadn't drowned him out so much," and I couldn't agree more. 

Coming off like some sort of late night talk show band, it would be wrong to say that the band wasn't utterly professional sounding, but the slick drums, hot guitar licks and smooth bass from the gentleman in the Kangol hat sounded flat, lifeless and soulless, a real drag considering the grit Russell's shrill but still uniquely pleasant voice displayed on songs like "Georgia on My Mind." The bass player took the lead vocal on a cover of Shirely & Lee's "Let the Good Times Roll," but the song sounded neutered, with none of the weird edges and bite that performers in the past like Harry Nilsson and the Rolling Stones pushed. 

Russell returned to the Rolling Stones for a take on "Wild Horses," transforming the song from a mournful ballad to a jaunty, swinging number. He took on the Beatles, "I've Just Seen a Face," reading it the same way: brisk, spirited and vaguely disinterested. Not that the crowd seemed to mind, waving jazz hands, miming piano on the bar-top and shouting along.

The very best moment of the night came when Russell sent the band packing save for the guitarist, and the duo performed Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman Blues."  It was a sparse affair, with just Russell's singular voice and the light overdrive of the guitar, and it showcased the best Russell is capable of, soulful, honest, free of the big band glitz that distracted from his talent more than it showcased it. 

But the band was back for the closing couplet of Russell's own hit, "Stranger in a Strange Land," and a roaring take on "Great Balls of Fire." Both hit pretty hard, and the closer found Russell really playing the piano, his percussive banging and thin timbered hollering overpowering the band for a welcome change. 

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Leon Russell at the Rhythm Room

Better Than: Getting farted on by a dude anywhere else. 

Personal Bias: One of my best friends, Matthew Reveles, was a last minute addition to the show, joined by the incomparable Tony Martinez.  Though I'm too close to the man to be critical, he sounded damn good, and the lovely couple who joined us afterward felt the same way, letting Matt knew that they don't get out much anymore, and were quite happy to be introduced to Matt's music. 

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