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V/A: A Song For Leon - A Tribute To Leon Russell
Album review of a mostly charming and always well-meaning tribute album. Some real highlights on this (Margo Price, Pixies, Orville Peck...)
A Song For Leon: A Tribute To Leon Russell
Primary Wave Records
The great Leon Russell was very nearly all things to and for all people across a 50 year career. Needed a great live keyboardist? There he was on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh; wanted a songwriter to set you up with a goodie? His best-known, most-loved tune, A Song For You, was covered memorably by Donny Hathaway, one of at least 40 recorded versions of the song. He also wrote Superstar which the Carpenters made their own. And This Masquerade, which I first heard by George Benson, though it’s something of a modern-day standard. Then there was Leon the singer and solo artist. He belted out his own great tunes (Stranger In A Strange Land) and worked through so many rock’n’roll and soul covers too. Oh, he was a guitarist, pianist, backing vocalist, composer, arranger, producer, bandleader, and he was a member of the Wrecking Crew. So he’s there on something like 400 albums, by some of rock and soul’s biggest names.
The legendary Leon passed away in 2016 (He was 74) and this tribute album features many of his best known and loved tunes, interpreted by a cast of new and old, some big names, some will be new to you I’m sure. Some have been around nearly as long as Leon was.
Like almost all tribute albums, it’s arguably a mixed bag – and I also think that tribute albums exist to shine the light on the original artist; to send you there, or send you back there…
But this one has the goods, more often than not. And in fact I’m best reminded of the fantastic If I Was A Carpenter – that classic 90s post-grunge update of Carpenters songs featuring Sonic Youth and Grant Lee Buffalo and, erm, The Cranberries.
Anyway, A Song For Leon kicks off beautifully with Margo Price nailing Stranger In A Strange Land, singing it like it was meant to be and meant just for her, the way Price does with anything she tackles.
Other favourites include Orville Peck’s Elvis-lite reading of This Masquerade, Pixies sounding as committed as they have this time around with Crystal Closet Queen, and the bonkers-but-brilliant pairing of U.S. Girls and Bootsy Collins for a trippy remake of Superstar.
Not everything works, and try as I may, I can’t quite get on with Bret McKenzie attempting Back To The Island, but the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at least provides some sublime backing. And, hey, he doesn’t fudge it. That’s just me not enjoying his vocal take.
Jason Hill plays Laying Right Here In Heaven, but it’s most remarkable for featuring Tina Rose (Russell’s daughter) and Amy Nelson (that’d be Willie Nelson’s daughter). Hiss Golden Messenger deftly wraps the record with Prince of Peace, and if you were wondering, Monica Martin gets to do the honours with A Song For You. It’s one of so many tunes here (pretty much all of them) where, even when covered, you can feel Leon Russell in the song. Martin nails the song, as so many have, but really – this is a song that’s doing all the work for the artist, right? Leon’s great gift was that he wrote his songs for everyone and anyone, audience and performer. And yet if you’d ever heard his own version of any of his songs you could never forget it.
Albums like this exist to ensure we’ll never forget him. And for that alone it is absolutely worth your time.