A funny thing happened about 15 minutes into Leon Russell’s tightly wound set inside The Bear’s Den on Saturday night.
After three tunes of fleeting musical exhilaration, the room’s vibe turned on a dime and the stage became a hot plate on which Leon’s band would serve up sizzling slabs of blues rock beef that were definitely more filet than bologna.
I don’t know if Leon called an audible on the fly, or was simply testing the crowd’s patience, but the final hour was as concentrated as any show I’ve seen in quite some time. The twin guitar assault of Pat Flynn and Beau Charron was hitting from all angles while Leon tickled the keys with the passion we’d expect from the 70-year-old hall of famer.
Jam-band versions of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Wild Horses,” and “Georgia on my Mind” dominated in the early going as the audience found itself trying to decipher what song was being played given the unique arrangements. While I didn’t expect the covers to come as often as they did, the band’s flair for making a song their own ameliorated whatever reservations I had about the choice of material.
Prior to playing Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” Leon shared a droll anecdote about Jimmy’s alcohol escapades that had the crowd in stitches for the duration of the song. His sense of humor proved rather dry throughout the show, so I enjoyed every minute of it.
Leon’s voice may not be for everyone, but, when the rest of the band took a break, he opened up the pipes and delivered an exquisite rendition of his 1970 gem “A Song for You,” which even Elton John has called an American classic.
He sings with a stripped-down tenderness that transfixes the listener from the opening note, and the fact that he doesn’t travel with more acclaim is an indictment of the musical landscape in 2013.
He’s part of a dying breed of seasoned songwriters who made their mark on the industry by working hard and doing frequent session work with the biggest artists of the day before breaking out as a solo performer. His body of work has aged really well, because it wasn’t predicated on anything other than his natural brilliancy as a musician.
Because he’s not a big fan of walking at his age, he told the crowd to pretend that he left the stage and just dove right into an encore of “Great Balls of Fire” that had people clamoring for more long after the lights came on.
Leon remains, in my opinion, one of most underrated artists of his generation, so I hope he continues to tour and spread his music around for as long as his health will allow.
After a so-so evening from Gretchen Wilson two weeks prior, the Seneca Niagara Casino was back in full swing following Leon’s set, and the slate of upcoming shows for the spring should make it one of the premier concert destinations in Western New York.