Concert Review: Legendary Entertainer Leon Russell Performs at Mystic Theater, Petaluma, CA

PETALUMA, CALIFORNIA - It seems that Dolly Parton is credited with writing nearly every song in the world. Some of them you know from the radio and movies, some you hum on a crowded elevator. Leon Russell is just like Dolly Parton in that they both have more than just two big hits... and there he was, at the Mystic Theater, in Petaluma, California... Leon Russell, with the assistance of a cane in his left hand, strolled out to the glowing white grand piano set slightly off center stage; his familiar hat on top of his head tilted slightly forward.

Review and photos by Cmaden Barbour

However, I could see his eyes as he surveyed the audience and he looked to me, to be sizing us up for trouble. It occurred to me I might not want to be standing on his lawn uninvited. His long white hair flowed over his shoulders, his white beard ended in a thin layer over his chest.

Leon is known for songs you know from somewhere; you find yourself humming along but you think to yourself, it's Willie Nelson, isn't it? Maybe Helen Reddy? Leon wrote or co-wrote all the songs that Dolly didn't and when he performs them for you in the same room, live, you not only get a flawless performance by Leon and his band, but at the same time you get the sense that every song ever written some how flows throw Leon's veins, whether he wrote them or not.

Joy and heartache are roadbeds to the excursions of the songs he performs. The fact that he has shared the stage with every major talent during the last 50 years comes through as an undercurrent that sweeps you up in the awe of watching Leon Russell. You feel the glitz and the elbow grease behind the song itself.

At the Mystic Theater performance Leon brought each song to life is such a way that I felt connected to songs I didn't even know. The songs rolled out of Leon's space-aged piano as his fingers danced effortlessly over the keys, his voice delivered melodies from across the universe. His voice is the
sweet melancholy thinness you expect to come from the saloon doors of any honky-tonk on any empty highway across the country.

From behind his piano, Leon would turn slightly in his chair and address the audience with humorous stories about meeting Elvis or hanging out with George Harrison and Joe Cocker. He performed his own songs, songs he's written for others and songs others have written. A partial set list from the Mystic Theater would include: “Wild Horses”, “Tight Rope”, “Delta Lady”, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”, and “Georgia On My Mind.” Each song performed with sparkle and heart.

He let his band - Beau Charron on guitar, Jackie Wessel on bass and Brandon Holder on drums - take a break where he lowered the tempo and mood in the room with solo ballads. The band returned for a medley of songs from the 60s & 70s and for the encore, Leon remained in his seat and asked us to envision the band leaving and coming back after enthusiastic applause for the encore.

If one were to make a documentary film about Leon Russell it would be more than just an interesting subject of his time and period, Leon Russell would be the celluloid film itself. Any portion of the performance from this Petaluma, California show would be must have for that movie. (The opening act was Lee Gallagher and the Hallelujah)