Leon Russell Live at Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas
And a tribute of sorts to my recently deceased old friend, Tom Brown
By Rod Ames
Back in 1972, when I was a young, unworldly man of about twenty, my friend Tom and I went to see Leon Russell and the Shelter People perform at the Will Roger’s Coliseum in Ft. Worth, Texas. I was a big fan of Leon’s but my fandom was nothing by comparison to Tom’s unadulterated idolization.
Tom had every record, every poster, anything Leonic, he possessed. He adored the man and his music. If Leon Russell was a part of it, Tom was there. He always felt he had to be. If Tom had been a woman, he would have been one of Leon’s groupies. I’m certain of that. However, Tom being the strong heterosexual male he was, had to settle with being just another one of his doting fans. However, there was no doubt at all; Tom was Leon Russell’s biggest fan. He had to have been. I could not imagine how anyone could have appreciated Leon Russell’s music more.
Our seats were on the floor of the coliseum, about twenty or so rows back. Leon hit the stage and his mere appearance, before he had played a single note on his piano, garnered a mammoth cheer from the audience of roughly fifteen-thousand young men and women, complimented with the addition of a standing ovation. All this before the show had even officially begun. No one had even introduced him. It wasn’t necessary. His simple stroll out onto the stage was all it took to get the audience in his grasp. We were his puppets. We boogied to Leon Russell’s music the entire evening, the aroma of hemp, booze, and vomit filling the air. It was a magnificent night indeed.
Fast-forward thirty-seven years to Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas. The world famous dance hall has been around since the dinosaurs and has seen artists like, well, everyone. If you want to see the list go to http://www.gruenehall.com/names.html. It’s an incredible list of performances. The place is deeply entrenched in music history.
Friday night was similar to that night in Ft. Worth so many years earlier, in many different ways. I’d be willing to lay you odds; many of the same people were at this show. We all just looked a lot different. In most cases, there was a lot less hair (either gone or shorter) and much more mass. Mass that had settled especially around the mid-sections and posteriors. I didn’t smell any hemp this time, but the booze and maybe a hint of vomit were in the air.
And so was Leon.
He came on stage and the crowd of about five-hundred or so roared. Everyone was on their feet and we stayed that way the entire evening. He started with the Jagger-Richard’s tune “Jumping Jack Flash” (of course), which over the years has become as much of a signature song for Leon Russell as it has been for The Rolling Stones, but I think my favorite tune of the evening was an extremely Leonized version of The Stone’s “Wild Horses”.
Of course he did all of his classics, Dylan’s ever-present “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (the first song I ever heard by Leon Russell) echoed through the hall and poured out onto the streets of Gruene. “A Song For You”, “Back to the Island”, all the great ones Leon Russell had penned himself. When it came to writing songs in the 70’s, Mr. Russell was certainly one of the greats.
He put out album after album. He was an innovator of music and wasn’t afraid to take chances. Remember Hank Wilson’s Back? Remember the live album he recorded with Willie Nelson? He even upstaged (in my opinion) Joe Cocker during the infamous Joe Cocker’s Mad Dog and Englishmen tour.
He has since replaced the familiar stove-pipe hat with a more traditional looking cowboy hat. However, when a cowboy hat sits on top of Mr. Russell’s snow white, long and flowing head of hair, it looks nothing like anywhere near traditional. That’s Leon Russell for you!
His band was spectacular and consists of Leon Russell on his piano, Jackie Wessel on bass guitar and vocals, Chris Simmons on guitar and vocals, Brian Lee on keyboards, and Brandon Holder on drums. The band was tight as hell on every single song. Jackie Wessel’s solos on a couple songs were very strong. I don’t know if this was the same band that was with Leon when I saw him five or so years ago in Kerrville, or not, but if they were, they have certainly gelled more since then. Or maybe it was the hall itself.
Performing in a place as abundantly rich in music history as Gruene Hall is bound to cast a spell on the musicians. It sure seemed that way last night.
The only thing missing was my old friend Tom. I lost my friend back in April of this year but I certainly felt his presence last night. Tom was boogying to the music somewhere.
I felt it.