Elton John/Leon Russell – Union – Decca/Mercury Records

by | Oct 31, 2010 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews | 0 comments

Elton John/Leon Russell – Union – Decca/Mercury Records B0014840-02, 63:17 ****:

(Elton John – piano, vocals; Leon Russell – piano, vocals; T Bone Burnett – producer; featuring Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Booker T Jones, Jim Keltner, Marc Ribot and many others.)

Certainly, Elton John has attained global acclaim and stardom. His accomplishments, traversing popular music, theatre, movie scores and charity, (resulting in knighthood), are celebrated. Leon Russell, on the other hand, worked his way through the formative era of Sixties, as session player for the iconic Phil Spector ensemble. He also worked with Frank Sinatra, The Tijuana Brass, Jerry Lee Lewis, and eventually had an impact with the rock establishment (Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, The Band, Dave Mason, and Eric Clapton, to name just a few).

Russell became a mesmerizing figure as musical director of the Joe Cocker/ Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour in 1969. With dizzying visceral arrangements of R &B, gospel, country, and rock ‘n roll, the Sixties culture took on the vibe of a religious tent revival. That attitude inhabited the Leon Russell album which put him on everyone’s radar. His subsequent, incendiary performance at The Concert For Bangladesh (the first large scale benefit concert), in counterculture parlance, blew everybody’s minds. The emergence of this soulful country rocker from Oklahoma would influence a new generation of rockers, including Elton John. Russell’s star has faded with time, but not in the heart of John, who organized a recording session with his mentor and friend earlier this year.

The Union is a fourteen song affirmation of gospel-flavored rock. From the opening trademark piano riffs of “If It Wasn’t For Bad”, it is clear that Russell’s artistic vision is the focus. Steeped in country roots, his barrelhouse piano hooks and vocal fervor are matched with equal intensity by Elton John. T Bone Burnett has eschewed the industry’s prevalent, minimalist production for grandiose arrangements, emphasizing spirited hymn-like choruses, and textured horn charts. The duo shines on “Jimmy Rodgers’ Dream”, a spry tribute to the “Father of Country Music”. The use of a pedal steel guitar, entwined with effervescent vocals, facilitates a natural connection to Delta music. High octane rockers like “Monkey Suit” and “Hey Ahab” represent a stylistic homage to Russell’s sonic fervor.

For good measure Elton’s longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, has contributed to this project. The collaboration resonates on the Civil War ode, “Gone To Shiloh”.  A timeless narrative is recounted with pathos and resignation (“Heaven help the South, when Sherman comes their way”). The poignancy, articulated in the second verse, is transcendental, as sung by Neil Young. Another John/Taupin composition, "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” has a country waltz treatment that could have graced Tumblewed Connection.  Russell’s illness during the session has been documented in great detail. His response is “In The Hands Of Angels”, a plaintive Sunday morning hymn, with church organ accompaniment by Booker T. Jones. A lavish angelic swell of voices bolster the fragility of Russell’s soulful intonations.   

The liner notes offer some personal insight by Elton John on the making of the album. There are beguiling side by side photographs of both artists as children, seated at the piano (Incredibly, Russell possessed that piercing stare at a very young age). The Union hasn’t transformed the music industry. It has simply provided a healthy dose of the rock gospel.    

TrackList: If It Wasn’t For Bad; Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes; Hey Ahab; Gone To Shiloh; Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream; There’s No Tomorrow; Monkey Suite; The Best Part Of The Day; A Dream Come True; When Love Is Dying; I Should Have Sent Roses; Hearts Have Turned To Stone; Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody);In The Hands Of Angels.

— Robbie Gerson

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