Elton John may never set foot in Knuckleheads, but the pop icon's gracious influence was felt Friday at the East Bottoms roadhouse. Leon Russell seemed frail and weary when he performed at the venue in 2010. Since then, Russell has toured with John in support of a duet album and has leveraged John's patronage into greater recognition for his many accomplishments.
"About a year ago Elton came and found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life," Russell said as he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. "He took me up to the high stages with big audiences and treated me like a king."
A reinvigorated Russell entertained an audience of almost 700 Friday with an energetic 90-minute performance. The first indication of Russell's return to form was his maniacal hollering that accompanied the set opener "Mystery Train." His enthusiam never waned as he displayed the formidable talent that allowed him to build an eye-popping resume. As an arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Russell has credits on classic albums by Frank Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, John Lennon, the Gap Band and George Jones. He's toured with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones. Two of his songs - "This Masquerade" and "A Song For You" - have become standards.
Deliberately eccentric decisions have prevented Russell from achieving wider popularity. He issued commercially disastrous jazz and country albums just as his career was poised to reach new heights in 1973. And the distinctive look he's maintained for decades- long hair, shaggy beard and enigmatic sunglasses- further isolate him from music's mainstream.
Yet his idiosyncrasies have endeared him to his fellow musicians. Without ever seeming like a shameless name-dropper, Russell told stories Friday about friends including Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson and the late Gram Parsons. He related an amusing off-color anecdote about B.B. King in his introduction to "Sweet Little Angel." He recalled watching Bob Dylan write "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" before playing a fiery version of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."
Russell, 70, also offered insights into his life and work. He recalled that a crystal radio he made as a boy in Oklahoma received nothing but blues and gospel stations. He also boasted that he began playing in nightclubs when he was 14. Not all of his memories were happy.
"I was crazy about her when I married her," he explained of the inspiration for the song "Lady Blue." "When I divorced her I was just crazy."
The captivating chatter reflected Russell's rejuvenation. His 2010 appearance at Knuckleheads was solid but tinged with sadness. Friday's show was a powerful and authoritative statement. Russell's serviceable four-piece band followed his lead as he surveyed a broad swathe of roots music. Only a handful of living artists - a list that includes Nelson, Levon Helm, Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint - naturally combine so many strains of American music with such artfulness. The only common element of the jazz, blues, folk, country and rock performed Friday was Russell's immediately distinctive drawl. It contains the passion of Ray Charles, the heartbreak of Hank Williams and the smile of Mose Allison.
His singing added luster to a Floyd Cramer-style rendition of the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," a notably funky version of the 1972 hit "Tight Rope" and an edgy take on "Out In the Woods." His unaccompanied reading of "A Song For You" was staggeringly beautiful.
During the induction ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, John attempted to explain Russell's influence.
"He was my idol," John said. "He sang, he wrote and he played just how I wanted to do it."
Thanks in part to John's benevolence, Friday's audience witnessed Russell's true greatness.
Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms
Stranger In a Strange Land
Sweet Little Angel
Kansas City Woman
Baby What You Want Me to Do
Back to the Island
I've Just Seen a Face
Georgia on My Mind
A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall
Out In the Woods
Kindhearted Woman Blues
A Song For You
Jumpin' Jack Flash/Papa Was a Rollin' Stone/Kansas City
Great Balls of Fire/Reelin' and Rockin'/Blue Suede Shoes