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Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisEver since Leon Russell reunited with longtime friend Elton John to release the T Bone Burnett-produced album "The Union" in 2010, the singer/songwriter/piano player returned to spotlight in spades. In addition to that modern day classic, the session man, composer for other artists and solo star was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, followed by the release of 2014's "Life Journey" (split between covers and two new tunes).
It's no wonder why Tuesday's show at Chicago's cozy City Winery sold out (and prompted a second engagement on Wednesday) as the Oklahoma native wove together five decades of country, rock, folk and blues. The 72-year-old legend may have walked to his electric piano with a cane, but his eccentric yet endearing vocals sounded spot on during "I Got A Woman" (sung in the style of Elvis Presley), while his sense of humor was just as sharp, citing the time he accidentally insulted "The King" about making a string of miserable movies.
Considering he's collaborated with virtually everyone (The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Willie Nelson, Ike & Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, amongst dozens more of equal stature), he could've easily spent the entire time telling stories if he didn't have so many songs to sing. Thankfully, he did intersperse a handful, such being in George Harrison's all-star band at The Concert For Bangladesh (accompanied by his take on Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"), seeing B.B. King cry tears of joy when they recorded "Hummingbird" together (durably repeated in Russell's initial form) and being pals with recently departed gospel great Andrae Crouch (remembered with the hymn "His Eye Is On The Sparrow").
Though he may not be as famous as some of the aforementioned, many of those same artists would instantly call Russell a peer thanks to an esteemed personal catalogue that stretches back to 1968. Anyone who wondered otherwise would've surely been convinced come the jovial Dixieland jam "Tight Rope," the swampy "Delta Lady" (offered in memory of longtime boss Joe Cocker) and the signature "A Song For You," which may have been remade by Donny Hathaway, Whitney Houston, Michael Buble, Amy Winehouse (and about a hundred others), but felt most at home in the hands of this original wordsmith and his millions of road miles that continue to inform its bittersweet inspiration.
Leon Russell returns to City Winery on Wednesday, February 25. Other upcoming venue highlights include Sam Moore (February 27), The British Invasion Tour (March 7), The Signal: A Doo Wop Rhapsody (March 9); Shooter Jennings with Waymore's Outlaws (March 10); Langhorne Slim (March 11); Michael McDermott (March 13); Del McCoury Band (March 14) and The Weight: Music of The Band (March 15). For additional details, visit www.citywinery.com/chicago.
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