From where I sat (at my new journalist super-station off stage right), Leon Russell was, physically speaking, in the background. Seven musicians filled the stage with bodies and energy and music. And waaaay over on the other side, by Keith Bilbrey’s podium, was a thicket of cables and a massing of boxes and an electronic piano and seated behind THAT was a solemn looking man with graceful and abundant white hair and beard, a crisp white cowboy hat and sunglasses that resembled the windshield of a Lamborghini. Would Mr. Russell, working on his second half-century in the music business, be swallowed or subordinated by his gear or his large and exceptionally talented band?
Hell to the tenth power of no.
Leon’s physical, rhythmic command of the piano and his band were absolute. His voice had a wiry edge over a soulful foundation. He makes few unnecessary moves or gestures, amplifying his mystique. As we kicked off a new season and a new calendar year, we all felt we were in the presence of greatness.
This night was loaded generally, with some predictable excellence and some surprise packages too. We started with the former – a state-of-the-art bluegrass band that regularly headlines big venues and festivals. IIIrd Tyme Out opened with “Old Home Place,” that J.D. Crowe greatest hit that’s become such a parking lot picker’s fave. Less standard was the three-part harmonies in “Country Roads.” I never loved the John Denver version, but this tapped my toes. The band’s new album – out just this week – covers classic country and pop tunes in a bluegrass vein, so they dipped into that for “Only You,” the doo-wop standard and gave it their signature vocal power. Star lead singer Russell Moore was under the weather, poor guy, but you wouldn’t have known it. Feel better pal.
If I had the dictatorial powers I crave, I would have stood up at the end of Star & Micey’s three-song set, waved my hand and given them two more. Effervescent, rhythmic and magnetic, this trio plus drummer proved why they’re rising fast in their home town of Memphis. Up front, singer/musicians Josh Cosby, Nick Redmond and Geoff Smith stood close together, as if they were sharing a vibe (maybe they’re connected by Bluetooth?). They threw themselves into the vocals of “Love Me?” and “Number One.” Set closer “I Can’t Wait” must be their crowd-pleasing hit. It’s in seductive 6/8 time with a big cooing vocal refrain and a wonderful contrast of acoustic and electric guitar. In Star & Micey, you’ll hear some of the charm and updated folkie power that made Barenaked Ladies a big force, but with some of the sophistication and pop juju that I love in lesser known bands like Good Old War. Can’t wait to have these guys back.
Now I’ve seen situations where young artists assemble big bands and come out a bit like a dude driving a car that’s too fast and complex for them. But Josh Farrow steered his six-piece like a grand prix pilot. This East Nashville cat offered a tribute to Levon Helm, and indeed the rest of his set suggested a deep passion for The Band and other rootsy, full-sounding bands of the 1970s. I think Farrow’s group really hit its stride on its second song, a shimmying go-go blues where Josh’s intriguing vocals opened up wide and powerful. In “Devil Don’t You Fool Me,” his superb new single, his voice began with almost feminine clarity and then cranked up to a roar, all while staying in perfect synch with the band’s creative stops and dynamics. Solid job all around.
Thorpe McKenzie is a cool story, because I love seeing folks from non-music careers maintain their love and active involvement in their musical passion. Thorpe’s, uh, day job (if that’s the right term) was and is high finance and investing. But even though he had to set music aside for decades, he got back in five years ago, and he’s become an able band leader and front man. Two big points in his favor were the ballsy bespangled rhinestone suit and even better his choice of repertoire. Boomer-era blues bands too often skim the surface for your Sweet Home Chicagos and your Smokestack Lightnins. But the Thorpe McKenzie band tapped deeper roots with Baby Boy Warren’s “Mattie Mae” and Bo Diddley’s “Bring It To Jerome.” The band full of seasoned pros delivered energy. It was purely a bonus that Thorpe (a major-league guitar collector) played a guitar that I can only describe as a Telecaster made of sparkling purple Swiss cheese.
There must have been a misunderstanding, because we thought we were getting Leon Russell, and we got Hank Wilson. Har Har. I’m so funny. Hank Wilson is Russell’s classic country alter ego, and Leon/Hank brought us all right down to Nashville bedrock with a long set of beautifully interpreted songs from our American gene pool. First I should say that Mr. Russell was a delight in our interview early in the show. I’d heard he could be terse, but he told great stories and cracked everyone up. He’s also a generous guy, showing up to play as he did on a Nature Conservancy benefit night. As for the performance, it was built on the same assets that propelled him to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – not some showy on-stage semblance of charisma but pure musicianship. “In The Pines” departed from form with a snappy tempo and a minor key. He opened the improbable “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” with a jazz-inflected piano/vocal intro. His right hand set a heavy swing in motion for “I’ll Be There.” Russell voice has a touch of Dr. John and Levon Helm, but it’s utterly his own, and he sounded powerful and passionate on “Tennessee Waltz” and “On The Bayou.” Meanwhile a band that included guitarist Pat Flynn, vocal master John Cowan and banjo man Butch Robins tended to the overall sound like the Music City pros they are – supportive and enthusiastic but never overwhelming.
I however was overwhelmed. Two weeks ago I had an inadequate appreciation of Leon Russell’s legacy. Now I think he needs an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award. So you could say I’m a changed man. But isn’t that one reason we embrace music?