Leon Russell kicked off his Friday night concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center with Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and ended with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” In between, he played songs from his own remarkable career, and told stories about encounters with Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Gram Parsons.
There aren’t many people alive who have lived more rock ‘n’ roll history than Russell. He was touring with Jerry Lee Lewis when he was still a teenager, and soon became a member of the legendary Los Angeles group of studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Then came his high-profile collaboration with Joe Cocker (Mad Dogs and Englishmen), a prominent role in Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh,” and hit singles as a recording artist (“Tight Rope,” “Lady Blue”) and songwriter (“A Song for You,” “This Masquerade,” “Superstar”). In 2010, a collaborative album with Elton John (The Union) brought him more mainstream attention than he had had in years; the next year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Russell, 72 and still sporting a bold mane of white hair, made it to his piano in South Orange with the help of a cane, and told the crowd he was staying put at the end of set (instead of walking off and then returning for the encore) because it’s so difficult for him to walk. His voice, though — always gravelly, even in his younger days — has held up reasonably well, and there’s still a youthful buoyancy to his piano playing.
Highlights ranged from a wrenching take on the bluesy “Hummingbird” to a bracing sprint through The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” His three-piece band included a guitarist, Beau Charron, who upped the ensemble’s versatility considerably by switching to pedal steel, slide guitar, mandolin and organ at times.
The band left for a few songs late in the set, including “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (dedicated to the late Andraé Crouch) and “A Song for You,” then returned for a medley of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Paint It Black,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Kansas City.”
Elsewhere, Russell performed some more of his own songs, such as “Delta Lady” and “Out of the Woods,” but also included a little bit of everything else: a straightforward standard (“Georgia on My Mind”), a more obscure oldie (Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Kansas City Woman”), a classic-rock reinterpretation (Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” with a swampy feel).
You know how some biographies are titled “The Life and Times of …”? Well, this show felt that way. It wasn’t just about the songs Russell has written, but a survey of some of the greatest music produced during his lifetime, as seen through his eyes and interpreted by his voice and piano.