Live Review: Elton John and Leon Russell at the Hollywood Palladium
The Hollywood Palladium is bigger than the Troubadour, but it’s a living room compared to the Staples Center. Elton John settled into the relatively small venue on Sunset Boulevard on Wednesday and made it the grounds for a long-anticipated party — a fete for an old ally as well as a kind of reunion with himself.
The evening served as both a slightly overdue commemoration of the 63-year-old John’s career-shaping August 1970 Troubadour shows and a release party for “The Union,” his album with the 68-year-old Leon Russell, whom he introduced as “my friend and idol.”
Russell is one of those musical characters whose influence permeates many corners of the music world, and his boogie-woogie-infused 1970s albums were a major influence on the young John. Forty years later, the lovable Lion King is in a period of personal reassessment. Repaying his debt to Russell, John is getting in touch with the rawer roots of his own almost universally appealing sound. Their album “The Union,” produced by the golden-fingered T Bone Burnett, is a critical and commercial success that’s gotten John saying that from now on, he’ll be making “real music” instead of the Top 40 fodder that made him a household name.
Of course, that fodder is pretty great stuff, and at the Palladium he interlaced some of it into his rollicking performance. Russell too has written beloved hits, including the poignant “A Song for You,” which he performed during his brief opening set in a voice as gravelly and picturesque as an old Oklahoma road.
The material from “The Union,” which the pair performed in full during the middle of the show, has hooks too, along with spacious arrangements that allowed for much interplay among the members of the large band backing up the soloists. Outsanding numbers like Russell’s “If It Wasn’t for Bad” and “Hey Ahab,” a shaggy rocker by John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, satisfied fans looking for musicianly jamming — but they also boasted memorable choruses, not unlike the ones that brought John worldwide fame.
Russell might have reached that level of stardom, if not for his self-confessed prickliness and resistance to packaging. As a session musician and arranger for artists like George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker, Russell was a key player in classic rock’s marriage of roots styles and modern sensibilities.
Like many outstanding artists who first peaked in the 1970s, however, Russell couldn’t rest within a marketable category. His reemergence now, despite the health problems that cause him to walk with a cane and wobble a bit when he sings, is just desserts and well timed, now that the insatiable Internet has led to renewed interest in eclectic artists like himself.
At the Palladium, Russell let John play the goodwill ambassador role to which he’s so suited; the elder artist didn’t speak a word and entered and exited without fanfare. John was more effusive, spending time reminiscing and thanking his many friends in the VIP section — including former Times critic Robert Hilburn. John credited Hilburn with kick-starting his stateside career with a review of his debut Troubadour show and dedicated “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” from his 1970 album “Tumbleweed Connection” to the scribe.
Though he jumped up often to show off his sparkly jacket, wave to his fans and have a sip of water, John kept his theatrics to a minimum, preferring to seek out a groove with his fellow players, who included a full horn section and four backing vocalists. The great Memphis keyboard player Booker T. Jones joined in on a few songs, turning the evening into a fairly unmatchable keyboard summit; John noted that, remarkably, he’d never met the “Green Onions” maestro before he guested on “The Union.”
Early material like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Levon” allowed John to amply demonstrate his ability to roll and rag like a vintage bawdy house pianist. Without needing to play to the back row of an arena, he could focus on the keyboard during his own closing set. The freer mood energized John, who made sure to bow to the horns (“We have a tuba onstage!” he noted, clearly tickled) and call out his longtime mates, the drummer Nigel Olsson and the flashy, fun guitarist Davey Johnstone, who anchored the band.
As heartwarming as it was to see John finding his way back to what made him love music in the first place, his pop sense couldn’t wholly be suppressed. Ballads like “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song,” which had the crowd swooning, ran on characteristically warm, huggable melodies; his and Taupin’s 1983 smash “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” sounded more like a modern-day standard than ever. And when Johnstone ripped into the riff for John’s naughty 1974 glam rocker “The Bitch Is Back,” nobody in the crowd was worrying about integrity. They were too busy shimmying and shouting, and letting the song’s gaudy, delicious chorus roll over them.
-- Ann Powers
Photos: Elton John and Leon Russell. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times