Leon Russell - Life Journey

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Leon Russell
Life Journey

In the '60s, Leon Russell was tightrope walking atop the charts and taking command of stages he shared with giants like Joe Cocker and George Harrison. However, recent years found Russell fading away, playing small venues and putting out a string of stripped-down albums that often leaned toward country and bluegrass rather than rock and blues. But a few years ago, longtime fan Elton John boosted Russell's profile quite a bit with their Union duo album. Suddenly, Russell was hot again, at age 70.

How to follow up that act?
By now, everybody and their backup singers have done the album-of-old-standards route, some many times over (I'm looking at you, Ms. Ronstadt and Mr. Stewart). At first glance at the song titles, Life Journey may seem like that same old thing, but the Elton-invigorated Russell sidesteps the traps that have snagged others by taking side trips. "Georgia on My Mind" features a huge horn section. Russell's greasy jazz organ solo takes "That Lucky Old Sun" out to lunch at the chicken shack. He proves he can take a chestnut like "Fever" and make it both boogie and woogie (on both piano and organ). The well-varied set has only a couple of missteps, as in the full-Broadway production on Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," which is mind-boggling. And it features two new Russell tunes: the blush-inducing "Sweet Lips" and the self-explanatory "Down in Dixieland."

So sure, Russell's voice is pretty damn grizzled by this point, but given that he was never anywhere near the smooth-crooner category (remember "This Masquerade?"), the present-day grit just sounds comfortably familiar. While Life Journey doesn't blow the top off the pot with some "Jumpin' Jack Flash" style old-school Russell bombast, this collection of songs percolates along quite steadily throughout. - Jeffery R. Lindholm

Listen to "Fever"

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