You look at the blindingly white beard, forbidding shades and enormous cowboy hat and do a double take. Am I seeing double? An audience member, who apparently longs to be Leon Russell’s doppelganger, is sitting in the first row and frenetically pointing to his own faux facial hair, which is clinging to his weak chin with artificial means. But the real Russell doesn’t seem to mind being imitated or emulated, even as his fake twin clamours incessantly throughout the set for the rock royal’s blessings.

Perhaps his savior faire is a result of those early years of performance, picking up piano at the age of four, and performing since the age of fourteen in his native Oklahoma with the Starlighters, along with J.J. Cale and Johnny Williams.

Leon Russell has spent a lifetime being a sideman, session master and solo artist. He was a valued member of the 1960s 'Wrecking Crew', the elite alumni of top-notch session players from LA. His unarguably distinct riffs were heard on Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s ‘Monster Mash’, and after paying his dues he garnered major success when crusty-voice Joe Cocker recorded his dynamic ‘Delta Lady’ for his 1969 self-titled album.

The more bittersweet ballad, ‘Superstar,’ which he co-wrote with Delaney and Bonnie, was scooped up by the sultry Rita Coolidge and coveted by the campy Bette Midler. Thematically the lyrics spoke to being abandoned by an icon. The touching words and the semi-classical arrangement hit the mainstream mark.

In 1970 Russell recorded his eponymous first solo album, which included the delicate ‘A Song For You,’ which was covered by Ray Charles, Peggy Lee and Amy Winehouse. And a few years later, ‘This Masquerade’ and flip side ‘Tight Rope,’ would cement Russell’s reputation as an outstandingly versatile composer.

In the 1980s he toured with New Grass Revival and in 2009 he joined forces with other artists, to whom he shared a mutual respect. Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Russell recorded 'The Union', which was released in 2010 and produced by T-Bone Burnett.

Given all this pomp and circumstance, you’d like to part the seas and brandish a healthy helping of humility when Russell walks onstage. But despite his rock royalty status, when he joins his band, and sits down at his electric keyboard, he does so with little fanfare.

Russell opened the set with ‘Prince of Peace’. A drummer, electric lead guitarist and bassist, not to mention the Apple computer, which allowed him to preview the lyrics, joined him. The song chugged along splendidly, allowing the players to stretch themselves and come together in double-time near the coda.

The more traditional bluegrass epic ‘Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, which was made super famous by Flatt and Scruggs, brought out a full male chorus, which greatly enhanced Russell’s gravelly voice. Though the doppelganger got incredibly excited at this point in time, he did nothing to screw up the rock star’s focus.

The Dixieland swing and some choice pedal steel made this tune outstanding and, after some ferocious ensemble-driven measures, Russell treated us to an array of blue licks.

Another popular standard, ‘Let the Good Times Roll’, propelled the star to express his distinct drawl. The vocals were shared with the bassist, allowing Russell to throw in some boogie for good measure.

‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, a 1962 Dylan cover, followed some more precise lead work and a reflective ballad. This cover was a funky twist on the American classic, coloured by effervescent slide guitar, which was much appreciated by the audience.

Russell’s vocals on ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ were particularly soulful. They even got the doppelganger to chill out in time for the captivating ‘Kansas City Woman’.

Though the songs moved along at a brisk clip and the band was tight, I think we wanted a bit more Leon. By this time, he still hadn’t muttered a word.

But that didn’t stop him from pouring himself into ‘Wild Horses,’ the Stones cover which kept up a hard hitting tempo, though it didn’t last long enough to get us lost in the romance of the words. But the lead guitar brought us immediately back to our roots.

‘Georgia’ allowed Russell an opportunity to truly shine and fortunately the band held back enough to let the singer’s low tones resonate. The lead guitarist’s mastery of so many impenetrable styles, which included many classy tones, may have contributed to Russell’s completely relaxed vocal performance.

The Beatles cover, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face', heralded another powerful vocal performance. Seated like a well-nourished Cheshire cat, an emperor on his gilded throne, Russell demonstrated a down-to-earth elegance. ‘Hummingbird’ with its soft-spoken appeal and air of vulnerability set up the next set nicely - the audience stood up to receive the double-threat ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Delta Lady’. The former, which has quirky lyrics about a “rubberneck giraffe,” was fascinating musically and in terms of visual imagery. The imaginative carnival feel was well-expressed. Russell’s cat-like growl evolved into a contagious hook for the second of the pair.

Then solo, under a soft spotlight, Russell coveted the keyboard and cranked out ‘My Sweet Emily’ with some hard hitting, yet gentle persuasion. “Like a Honky tonk queen, a dancer’s delight/She made me feel good…”

One of the next classics of the night was ‘Magic Mirror,’ with its litany of confessions: “To the preacher, I’m a sinner/But I’m not the only one…” It included a stately boogie bass and a wonderful bluesy intro before Russell bellowed: “Standing by the highway, a suitcase by my side…” Without missing a beat, he then launched into a pure, sincere rendition of ‘A Song For You,’ and, after uttering these tender phrases: “If these words don’t come together/Listen to the melody, my love,” he received a near standing ovation.

Then, back with his colleagues, the band launched into a cataclysmic ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’ which brought the doppelganger up on his hind legs, and for ‘Papa was a Rolling Stone’, the impersonator stood up and added a dangly verse of air guitar.

Then followed a medley beginning with ‘Paint It Black,’ which included a stormy instrumental interlude. Russell’s rusty, chewed off notes made the song radically rock and the lap steel and space-aged guitar effects turned the much-performed cover into an extravaganza.

Russell finally addressed the excited audience, who reacted like a loyal congregation at the pulpit. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much. Bless your heart.” Then he confided, “I’m not crazy about walking so just pretend we walked off the stage and came back…”

We not only didn’t hold it against the band, but we embraced the moment. A sea of dancers rose from several corners of the room, as ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ let loose like Rice Krispies in a bowl of cold milk. The guitar solo was remarkable and the screaming crowd suitably lauded the band’s dynamic energy.

After the show, the lead guitarist, Pat Flynn, was kind enough to chat and discuss a bit of his history and his relationship with Leon Russell.

Like Russell, Flynn started his career playing as a session musician, though in Nashville. It seemed to be destiny that they would tour together as they had run in similar circles.

“I was at Leon’s house working on a record and the guitar player quit during the tour. I’ve only been playing a week now,” he said, saving a space on the couch near the still-open bar.

“He hears like a hawk. If he hears something wrong…” Flynn smiles as though we are privy to an inside joke. He explains more about their trajectory. “He was a hero of mine as a kid. He started doing records in high school. My whole family before me is from Chicago,” he explains, though he’s well travelled.

He discusses the process of learning Russell’s material: “I learn it exactly as it was on the record. I play it note for note. Then when I get a sense of what everybody is going to do…”

“The Eagles wanted every note to be the same. Solos are all up to you,” he confirms, when talking about Russell’s preferences. Flynn has done his homework. “I’ve studied Leon Russell from day one. I’m very familiar with the history of the songs. I study the stories. I study the books. I know as much about his career as he does.”

He is a versatile multi-instrumentalist. “I’ve been playing for forty years. I started with the ukulele and got a Sears guitar out of the catalogue,” he snickers, as though he were back in the day, leafing through the department store’s glossy mailing. “I wanted drums, but I settled for guitar.”

“I hadn’t heard ‘Magic Mirror',” he says, about tonight’s set. “I sit out in the audience and listen to it every night,” he says, hinting that it may well be one of his favorites, although he insists it’s impossible to just name one.

“‘Lady Blue’ is one of my favourites because it’s softer. I can get in the tones more than the notes.”

Flynn’s background includes performing on 35 platinum records with Rosanne Cash and Reba McEntire. “I had the most fun playing lead on the last number one record of Glen Campbell,” he adds. Jumping up from his seat, he states, “Holy Cow, I get to play for Jerry Reed!”

“You’re there as an instrument,” he explains, unravelling the performance process. “You have to put yourself in a mental place to get simpatico. I played for Harry Connick Jr. I played for Reba. You have to know who they are…”

But Flynn concedes that every performer demands his best. “I’m going to give an unknown as much attention as I would a celebrity. You have to be confident in your playing. It’s an extremely small crew of guys. You took somebody’s chair. Somebody will come around the corner. I held that chair. I didn’t want to wait for Billy the Kid to come around the corner.”

As we speak, the American east coast is suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which left many of their touring cities ravaged. “New Hampshire, Boston to New York. It’s a mess. They’ll reschedule,” he sighed, expressing sympathy, but explaining that the band will make the best of their unexpected time off.

Flynn joined the New Grass Revival in 1981, performed with Bela Fleck and stayed for ten years. “I’m always trying to work on some specific things. I missed everything in high school,” he explains, by practicing long hours and missing social events. And though he has mastered many instruments he confesses, “I do my thinking on the guitar.”

Flynn, who has also worked as a producer, says that he is comfortable with the experience, but “it’s evolved.” “I’ve been in the studio. I know the territory. I know all the guys in Nashville. I come from the ranks.”

As for inspirations, Flynn lights up when he mentions David Lindley, who played with Jackson Browne. “He has transformed guitar playing into a human voice.” He also ticks off a diverse list of professionals, which includes James Burton, Grady Martin, George Harrison and Eric Clapton,” before explaining his modus operandi.

“My generation is less note-oriented,” he confirms. He also discusses Doc Blossom, who was voted best acoustic guitar player in 'Frett’s Magazine', and quickly adds Jeff Beck to the growing list because he is “so unique.”

“He is iconic to me because he forged a completely different style out of the British Blues. “That bar is almost like a sixth finger,” he says, referring to the whammy bar, and how Beck employs it in his performance.

And as for his own songwriting Flynn states: “Dylan gave me permission. You didn’t have to write Tin Pan Alley songs…I’ve had a chance to do everything. I’ve never tried to do anything less than anything. I wrote a hit for Garth Brooks, 'Do What You Gotta Do'.


Photos by Jim Summaria www.jimsummariaphoto.com









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