00:04 Download November 29th, -0001

(if you’d like, you can click below/right and listen to me read the review with some of the music from the record!!)

I have to say that I love the IDEA of this album as much as, if not more, than the actual execution of it. Elton John has long acknowledged his love for Leon. In fact, situations were reversed in 1970 when Leon was established and Elton was the opening act. This project came about when Elton was appearing on the Sundance show Spectacle and host Elvis Costello asked Elton to name three cherished singer/songwriters that he thought had been forgotten.  Leon was one of those. In fact, when you listen to Leon Russell and his piano style first and then listen to early Elton John, you can immediately detect the connection. And the debt owed. That’s what’s so special about this album. Elton lifts Leon out of obscurity for this repayment and you just don’t hear of kindness like that too often.

What I DO love is hearing Leon’s incredibly distinct voice again. And sounding the same as it did back in those delightful Delaney and Bonnie days. Those “Tightrope” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” days. That’s a certain shaky quality that belies how much of a grip he has on a vocal.  (Speaking of shaky, Neil Young shows up on a song). There’s a little Willie (Nelson, that is) feel going on there. Leon’s southern boogie piano rock is pure joy. 

The album starts with an undeniable Russell riff followed by an angelic chorus on “If It Wasn’t For Bad.” It’s a jaunty and promising open. But after awhile on this album, I wanted to show the angels the exit. Too many angels too much. 

T-Bone Burnett produced this album (of course he did! who else does these days??) but his mark is not so evident on all the songs. There are a few that get the thwap and whack of a stand up bass and that bend-y time warp-y T-Bone-y touch. The tom toms get to be a bit much as they seem to travel from one song to the next and don’t always seem appropriate. One song (“Gone to Shiloh”) has the gauziness of a Daniel Lanois production. Also making appearances: Brian Wilson, Booker T and Robert Randolph. And of course, where there’s Elton John, there’s Bernie Taupin.

The fourteen songs encompass soul, gospel, country, rock and R&B.

Recorded live in the studio with each on their respective piano benches, it’s hard to untangle who’s playing what. Their styles entertwine. I wish the piano levels had been mixed higher. They deserve front and center. Also while I’m wishing, I hoped for more up tempo songs.

Elton has said this “was one of the greatest experiences of my life, not just musically, but emotionally.” This collaboration helped Elton make a decision to NOT make pop albums anymore. It truly affected him. And Leon credits Elton with saving him from obscurity.  In return, Leon shows his gratitude through the heartfelt down to the core gratitude of “In the Hands of Angels.”

Leon still with the long hair, totally and dramatically white, and the sunglasses strikes an imposing figure but became quite vulnerable during the recording of this record when he had to have surgery for a brain fluid leak. The fact that this project literally pulled him back into the game is reason enough to rejoice. Hallelujah! OK, time to cue those angels.

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