The history of rock ‘n’ roll is steeped with shady, mysterious figures who are rarely granted the opportunity to step out of the shadows cast by the iconic, luminous figures we have deemed “rock stars”. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, the list of entities who have etched their immortal mark on the face of popular music goes on but then on the other hand, you have someone like Leon Russell.
He’s not only contributed as a session player or sideman for all these acts and many, many more but it seems like whenever he releases an album (and bear in mind that since 1970, he’s put out 36 of them) it always goes largely unnoticed. The now septuagenarian Russell achieved some richly-deserved and long-awaited recognition for The Union, his 2010 joint album with Elton John and was just last month inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Here on his latest collection Life Journey, comprising mostly of covers, he shows that he still has a little fire left in his belly in 2014.
Opening with the swampy Bayou march of Come On In My Kitchen, it’s clear why this unparalleled list of superstars and countless others have consistently called on Russell’s prowess as a keyboardist on their recordings since the mid-‘60s. Following on is the new original tune Big Lips which keeps the New Orleans influence of stylistic innovators like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and the man who could be described as the Bizarro-Leon Russell (musically, vocally and even physically), Dr. John at the forefront.
His orchestral take on Ray Charles’ timeless Georgia On My Mind is tender, sincere and sympathetic to the original but the Hollywood strings and muted brass seem a little overblown and kind of unnecessary for someone more than capable of filling every bit of space within a song’s arrangement with nothing more than his ten fingers. The traditional That Lucky Old Sun has been cut by country legends Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash over the years and Russell flavours his take on it with his own unique blend of southern-fried soul to great effect.
The over-the-top orchestration is a bit of a pattern on Life Journey at times with I Got It Bad & That Ain’t Good, The Masquerade Is Over, I Really Miss You and Russell’s version of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind taking on rich 1940’s bandstand arrangements, all of which feel a bit like a square peg being shoved into a round hole. This has to be because Leon is truly at home when he’s taking songs from this era and playing them with his own unmistakable flair as opposed to the other way around and this is brilliantly shown on the country rock/gospel of his rollicking, freight-train take on big-band standard Fever or the vulnerability of the bare-boned nuances on Think of Me.
The slow-burning midnight organ and fiery Chicago blues licks of Fool’s Paradise demonstrate the scope of Russell’s versatility and his unapologetic, swinging Mardi Gras closer Down In Dixieland is about as genuinely New Orleans as you’ll come across by someone born in Oklahoma.
Like many seasoned old road-dogs, Leon Russell presents a pretty world-weathered façade to those who have never heard of him. He looks like Santa Claus’ hard-drinkin’ estranged younger brother from somewhere south of the Mississippi delta and he definitely has the voice to match. Without firing any undeserved pot-shots, over the course of Life Journey Russell’s pipes are noticeably weathered and while his vocals have a certain croaky charm to them, listening to that voice can get pretty fatiguing and you feel like taking off your headphones, flying to whichever southern dive-bar in which he may be sound-checking on any given night and handing the poor man a glass of water. This being said, it’s still great to see someone who’s spent the better part of his life in musical obscurity (the poor guy went from 1984 to 2010 without so much as one of the twenty albums he made over this period even charting) seizing the limelight and showing the world that age and notoriety are no obstacles when you’ve dedicated your life to playing music.