Last night’s triumphant Elton John and Leon Russell show at the Beacon Theater kicked off with a moving speech by Elton about his love and admiration for his musical hero. “When I started he was my idol, mentor and everything I wanted to be as a songwriter,” he told the sell-out crowd. “Tonight is very special for me.” With that, Leon Russell, walking slowly, with the help of a cane, took the stage to thunderous applause and a giant bear hug by Elton. They then began a two-and-a-half-hour concert that showcased their entire new T-Bone produced album The Union, and separate solo sets that proved beyond any doubt what an incredible creative debt Elton’s earliest and best work owes to Leon Russell.
Russell began the concert with a brief, six-song set of songs from his early Seventies catalog. Leon has faced a wide variety of physical problems in recent years, but his piano playing is undiminished, and his singing voice remains powerful. Songs like “Tight Rope” and “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arm’s” don’t get much radio play these days, but with the backing by T-Bone Burnett’s fifteen-piece studio band, they soared. Unlike Elton, Leon never transitioned into pop, and since the Eighties he has languished in obscurity on the club circuit. Last night it felt like he was resurrected.
The centerpiece of the show was a complete performance of The Union. Powered by four back-up singers, a four-piece horn section and the house band led by guitarist Marc Ribot, the songs sounded even better than they do on record. Elton and Leon have such similar styles it was often hard to tell who was playing piano. The best material on The Union ranks among the best work of either singer, particularly the Civil War epic “Gone To Shiloh.” When Elton and Leon’s voice merged on the line “when flags and bullets start to fly” the result was positively chilling.
Elton did most of the singing, but Leon’s lead vocals conveyed more emotion — particularly on the album’s closing track “The Hands of Angels.” Russell penned the gospel song himself, and it was clearly a thank you to John for helping to save his career. Earlier in the set, the duo had members of the audience dancing in the aisles on the rollicking “Monkey Suit” and “Hey Ahab.” John fed off the energy and was literally bouncing on his piano seat. Russell — whose long grey hair and beard make him look like a cartoon image of Father Time — barely cracked a smile all night, but it was still clear he was reveling in the long-overdue adulation.
When the album was complete, Russell left the stage and Elton lead the band through songs from his early, Russell-inspired albums. In this context it was clear that “Burn Down the Mission,” “Ballad of Well Known Gun” and “Levon” could not have existed without Russell paving the way. John has focused concerts on his hits so much at times that it was a joy to hear gems from his 1970-1972 heyday, though he later obliged the audience by playing Eighties hits “That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Sad Songs Say So Much.” After a barn-burning “Bitch Is Back,” Elton walked offstage and returned with Russell. He claimed they hadn’t rehearsed anything else, so they played “Hey Ahab” again. As they walked offstage, hand in hand, it was hard to tell who looked happier.