Sunday, May 1, 2016

Leon Russell - Leon Russell and the Shelter People (1971)

Leon Russell is a genius.  That's all you need to know to understand the man.  His talents, his ambition, and his influence all flow into his music and create his own distinctive sound, the hallmark of greatness.  Not just a singer/songwriter (though a great one), Russell was one of the most adept and prolific session men of the 1960s rock scene, playing on more records and more artists than many people could name, and his abilities and multi-instrumental proficiency would make him an unstoppable force when he debuted as an artist in his own right in the early seventies.
Leon Russell and the Shelter People, released 45 years ago this month, is his monumental second album.  Produced by Russell and Denny Cordell, it's an astounding work, fusing the blues and gospel influence of the Oklahoma prairie, where Russell grew up, with his classical training and his Hollywood professionalism, tempered by that sour, flat voice of his that brings his songs to life.   Plus, he gets solid help from members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and Eric Clapton's Dominos.  "Stranger In a Strange Land" and "Of Thee I Sing," with their sprightly piano and call-back church-choir vocals, are religious experiences in their own right, and the warmth of Russell's semi-autobiographical "Home Sweet Oklahoma," with its abrasive guitar, displays the personal and pensive side he could only show flashes of in his session work.  But Russell can rock out too; he roars through his Little Richard tribute "Crystal Closet Queen" with a wink and nod, and "Alcatraz," his account of the American Indian takeover of that island off San Francisco after the prison had closed, is a biting, explosive rocker that cleverly employs Native American rhythms.
I love Leon Russell and the Shelter People for its heart.  There's great emotional depth to Russell's music, and his penchant for a well-crafted, well-produced sound does not compromise the meaning of the songs, be it his own or his covers of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "It Takes A Lot To Laugh,  It Takes a Train To Cry."  Leon is confident in his music enough to let it complement his lyrics, as with "She Smiles Like a River," the guitars and shuffling drums emulating a lazily flowing stream.  He wraps things up nicely, having begun with a solemn plea for brotherhood with "Stranger In a Strange Land," with a brooding cover of George Harrison's "Beware Of Darkness" that's even more foreboding than the original.  Only once on Leon Russell and the Shelter People does Russell let production overwhelm the music . . . but for all its strings and slickness, his look back at leading Joe Cocker's 1970 tour, "The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen," may be the grandest personal statement he's ever made.      

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