Monday, June 20, 2011

A Song For Who?

Leon Russell, June 19th, Pittsburgh’s Trib Amphitheater

In a classic scene from the 1985 movie Sweet Dreams, Patsy Cline (played memorably by Jessica Lange) expresses frustration during a recording session that she cannot sing the song “Crazy” the way its writer (“that man”) wrote it. It was originally an up-tempo honky-tonk number. Encouraged to make it her own, we see its transformation into the slow, smoky, transcendent version Cline made into her signature tune. Her version utterly eclipsed Willie’s such that few know it ever sounded any different.

Take a look:

The Inky Jukebox offers this example of how a single song can be so right delivered one way, and so wrong another — even if the culprit is the author him or herself — in order to tell you about a crime that has been perpetrated upon the fans of Leon Russell for many years.

Now, let it be said that The Inky Jukebox has a very tender place in its heart for the white-haired madman piano-god genius, national treasure, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (class of 2011) that Claude Russell Bridges is. But we call it as we see (and hear) it, so here goes.

Back in the day (1970) when men were men and pianos were grand, Leon Russell wrote and recorded one of the finest songs there ever was, “Song For You.” What sets it apart from everything else, including all of the many cover versions recorded and made famous by others (Donny Hathaway, et al), is its unique sound: the echoing clanginess of the grand piano’s strings being hit can almost be felt physically as the sound waves bounce around inside the instrument; the horn lends a subtle yet haunting accompaniment; and Russell’s incomparable toffee-rich voice melts with the harmony seamlessly. The song is measured, slow, and ends with five chords of crazy-ass beauty that step down to a minor key.

Do yourself a favor and listen to it as it was meant to be:

Silly-good, right? OK, let’s fast-forward a few decades. Russell is out on the road playing to small clubs, having turned into the Oklahoman Santa with a cane that Elton John would later “rescue.” The Inky Jukebox saw him play at a bar to maybe 20 people back in the mid-nineties, and let me tell you, there wasn’t room for a grand piano in that place. It has been replaced by a shelf-like concoction holding a digital keyboard and electronic boxes all spewing a Medusa’s nightmare of cables from the back. From it, Russell can switch between Steinway Grand to Hammond B-3 as it suits him. OK; we understand the logistics.

But something else has been sacrificed in lieu of expediency (or what?) in his live show, and it’s something that shanks his fans right in the kidneys: they have all come and paid their cash money to hear him sing “Song For You” because only he can deliver it. The anticipation among the crowd is palpable: at this weekend’s gig, The Inky Jukebox could hear whispers about when it was going to appear — “is it next? Will it be the encore?” Yet when it comes, it sounds like … you guessed it, as if Willie Nelson was giving it a spin. No-one wants to hear this song as an up-tempo honky-tonk with jangling carnival organ.

Like this: (Listen at your peril)

This isn't from the Trib concert, but it sounded just exactly like that. As it did nearly 20 years ago when we first heard him in that tiny bar.

No, Leon Russell. No no no no no.

Apart from that, the concert was lovely and Russell was charming. The Inky Jukebox danced her ass off and thought that Chris Simmons, Russell's guitarist, was excellent.

Here is another interesting version that appears to be the beginning of that drift into the major-key barroom version he has adopted ever since.

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