[16 October 2011]
It’s safe to say that the last two years have been a bit of a renaissance for Leon Russell. Despite penning songs as venerated as “A Song for You” and “Superstar” (it’s the one with the line “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby?” that’s become an American Idol standby) and recording six gold records in the 1970s, Russell was mostly forgotten before his acolyte Elton John unearthed him with last year’s collaboration The Union. That album put Russell back in the public consciousness in a big way: it landed at #3 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the best albums of 2010 and earned Russell and John a Grammy nomination and an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Omnivore saw fit to release Live in Japan, a concert recording available only in Japan until now. The choice of locale is certainly no coincidence; the album’s title refers to Russell’s 1973 show at Tokyo’s famous Nippon Budokan arena, where the Beatles made their Japanese debut and Cheap Trick recorded their essential Cheap Trick at Budokan. The arena only holds about 14,000 spectators at capacity, but Russell’s performance there is nothing if not outsized; Russell and his band are full of bombastic energy throughout, keeping the proverbial volume at 11.
The second half of the album is gleaned from an earlier show in Houston, and it features highlights like the aforementioned “Superstar” (here under its original title, “Groupie (Superstar)”, and sung by Kathi McDonald) and an electrifying cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. But Live in Japan‘s tone is more along the lines of Russell’s Budokan set. More than anything, Russell seems determined to act as an ambassador of homegrown American music. He begins the concert like a revival, putting his backup singers front-and-center for two big gospel numbers. Russell’s backup singers are a huge part of this recording, often mixed higher than Russell himself, and that’s one of the few things that prevents Live in Japan from being an essential album. On more than one song, one of the backup singers is painfully flat; you can tell what note she’s trying to sing, and how it fits into the chord, but it creates a really rough sense of cognitive dissonance, especially if you’re a musician.
The rest of the album revolves around Russell’s own brand of stompy rock ‘n’ roll, infused with piano playing straight from Tin Pan Alley: the centerpiece of the set is Russell’s 1972 single “Tight Rope”, and we also get the proto-funk of “You Don’t Have to Go”. It’s easy to hear the influence Russell had on a young Elton John in these songs; you can easily imagine Elton listening to “You Don’t Have to Go” as he was writing “Honky Cat”, or humming along to “Queen of the Roller Derby” as he worked on “The Bitch is Back”. Russell doesn’t have a pretty voice by any means, but his growl has the same evocative grit as rock titans John Fogerty and Mick Jagger. For someone who also wrote a handful of timeless songs, it’s surprising Russell didn’t leave an even bigger imprint on rock music than he did.
Live in Japan hits all the notes live albums are supposed to, without venturing into camp or overindulgence. Russell isn’t too concerned with nailing every song note-for-note, nor does he fill in the gaps between songs with interminable banter and how’s-everybody-doings. He and his band just get up and play, mix a few covers and medleys in here and there, and jam out at the appropriate moments. It’ll make the first-time listener curious enough to hunt down more of Russell’s music, and it treats fans to rarities like a live cut of “Tight Rope”. What’s not to like?