Sometimes a disappearing act fosters intrigue. Other times, however, it simply halts inertia. It’s unlikely Leon Russell would ever admit to being a recluse, but considering his reign as an esteemed session musician, sideman and solo artist in the ’60s and ’70s, his subsequent decades remain, shall we say, rather undocumented.
Credit acolyte turned unlikely cheerleader Elton John for pushing Russell back into the spotlight with their 2010 collaboration, The Union, and reminding folks of the pianist’s unique and ultimately unclassifiable fusion of rock, gospel, soul and country. Despite de rigueur production from T-Bone Burnett and the presence of John, who’s admittedly deferential, it’s striking how much Russell shines through. John’s stated goal seems to have succeeded: While perfectly happy on the sidelines, Russell has maintained his comeback.
If small clubs like the Mayne Stage are a far cry from Russell’s previous haunts, they’re a gift to fans who get to see an artist of his stature up close and personal. That’s not to say Russell has suddenly transformed into a loquacious raconteur—as his own website declares, definitively, “LEON SPEAKS THROUGH HIS MUSIC.” But somewhere behind that white mane and dark glasses, the 70-year-old seems happy to be back doing what he does best, and what few do better.