WHAT: Leon Russell and the Billy McEwen Band
WHEN: Thursday night
WHERE: Lafayette Square
Happily, Leon Russell was wrong. Even when quoting Bob Dylan, who, time has proven, is quite rarely wrong. A hard rain never did fall. And, in part because of that, Buffalo got to experience a master rock/r&b musician at work. Russell's gig at Thursday at the Square was the dark horse of the event's summer season; Russell hasn't played here in ages, and to the rock 'n' roll cognoscente, this was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up.
For all the folks who came wondering who the hell this guy was, a bit of a resume review is surely in order.
Born in Oklahoma some 63 years ago, Russell cut his teeth playing with Jerry Lee Lewis in the '50s. Russell moved to Los Angeles, where he proceeded to play just about every Phil Spector session that mattered. He was still out West when he tracked along with the Byrds. Russell rode out the remainder of the '60s by co-writing/arranging a bunch of hit tunes for Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
The guy could've retired here, but he didn't. Sessions, and lots of 'em, occupied the next decade-plus for the man, including prominent ones with Eric Clapton, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Delaney and Bonnie, and others.
Oh yeah, there's also that small matter of the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, when Russell helped Joe Cocker assimilate Ray Charles' influence into the rock 'n' roll canon. Russell also helped make George Harrison's "Concert For Bangladesh" the soul-stirring event it was. And he still found time for a pretty damned impressive solo career, culminating in the time-defying 1972 record "Carney." No offense to this year's class of "next big things," but Russell's got more talent in his little toe than the majority of bands being backed with windfalls of cash by major record labels this year have in their entire rosters.
The highlights of the show were many. Russell bit the head off of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," and spat it back out as some sort of New Orleans-style affair. Keith and Mick's "Wild Horses" was reimagined as a boogie-woogie shuffle. Russell is a living legend, and deserves to be considered one. His band -- singer Tina Rose, percussionist/singer Sugaree Noel, bassist Jackie Wessell, drummer Cody Chesterfield, and guitarist supreme Jon Woodhead -- deserves serious props as well.
Billy McEwen and the Soul Invaders opened with aset of bowery blues, highlighted by a take on the Allman Brothers' "Good Clean Fun." Throughout the group's set, McEwen's vocals and soulful harp and Al Monte's spirited sax laid some hard-won truth on the Buffalo audience.