Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Drive-By Truckers*
August 16th, 2011
Merriweather Post-Pavilion, Columbia MD
* Remember this Drive-By Truckers story we ran seven years ago?? Well, the Truckers seem to be doing pretty well for themselves!
If there was ever an artist desperately in need of more recognition and exposure, Leon Russell should be at the top of the list. As a session musician, he was part of Phil Spector’s studio group; he played on many of Spector’s most famous recordings for groups such as the Ronettes, and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans. His piano is also a central part of Spector’s beloved Christmas album, A Christmas Gift For You, From Phil Spector. Over the years he also worked with various artists such as the Everly Brothers, Cat Stevens, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan just to name a few.
Russell wasn’t just content to be a sideman, however. In the 70s, he launched his own solo career, releasing such classics as Leon Russell and Will O’ the Wisp.
To a larger audience, Russell remained in the back seat and has only recently begun to draw some attention of his own. Most of this has to do with his latest collaboration with his friend, Elton John. The duo released their collaboration The Union late last year to critical acclaim.
For his summer trek through the US (as part of the so-called “Never Ending Tour”) Bob Dylan tapped Russell to open the shows. Resembling part cowboy, part Walt Whitman and part Santa Clause, Russell and his band tore into a half-hour set that covered blues, straight-up rock & roll and gospel.
Unlike most piano players, Russell’s playing cut through the rest of the band. The rest of his band, as tight as they were, seemed to play catch-up throughout the entire set. Russell turned The Beatles “I’ve Just Seen a Face” into a mix of Gospel and rock & roll. Imagine a less chaotic and more professional Jerry Lee Lewis putting his spin on the song and you get the idea. For The Rolling Stone’s “Wild Horses,” Russell turned the Stones’ signature lament into a late afternoon party. There were two B.B. King covers as well, which Russell not only re-invented but made into his own.
Russell barely uttered a word throughout his set, opting for his performances to do the talking. As his set drew to conclusion, he proved to be more than a worthy opener for arguably the greatest living songwriter.
It was hard to know whether Russell could be topped, even with Dylan as the headliner. Dylan shows can either be amazing or subpar – and I’ve witnessed both. On this particular night, Dylan seemed in high spirits and in a jovial mood. While his voice has mostly entered into a monotone growl, the opener “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” retained a lot of its original charm and wit. Dylan mostly stuck to his signature keyboard of late, but on occasion stepped out solo to the microphone with a Jaw-harp and also strummed an electric guitar to the cheering crowd. “Tangled Up in Blue” was given a radically different treatment than the studio version, while “Simple of Twist of Fate” was even more melancholy than its sad studio counter-part.
Since Bob Dylan does what he wants (and always has), almost every single song was indecipherable until the first lyric. The newer songs stayed relatively the same, but for the most part, a Bob Dylan show is a musical guessing game; you never know what you’re going to get. Dylan doesn’t play to the crowd, which depending on your viewpoint either makes him seem like a cranky old man, or someone who likes to challenge himself.
The encore consisted of two of Dylan’s best-known songs: “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s always great to hear the legend sing one of rock & roll’s best songs, but it’s also a letdown when the third verse is strangely omitted.
Since Dylan tours so often and mostly sticks to amphitheaters and small arenas, tickets are affordable and easy to get even days before the show. Overall, both Dylan and Russell proved that rock’s elite is still giving it everything they’ve got. While most of the songs are nostalgic for many, neither artist viewed their set as such.