Elton John and Leon Russell : The Union
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Elton John and Leon Russell : The Union

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When Leon Russell played The Palais in St Kilda in 1980 with the Amazing Rhythm Aces, his legacy was memorable. And it wasn’t his backstage beer rider – a garbage bin full – pillaged by fellow pianist Jack McKinnon of Madder Lake who guested with famed support act The Dead Livers. Indeed, Russell’s musical marriage with bluegrass band Newgrass Revival is embedded deep in this writer’s psyche.

When Leon Russell played The Palais in St Kilda in 1980 with the Amazing Rhythm Aces, his legacy was memorable. And it wasn’t his backstage beer rider – a garbage bin full – pillaged by fellow pianist Jack McKinnon of Madder Lake who guested with famed support act The Dead Livers. Indeed, Russell’s musical marriage with bluegrass band Newgrass Revival is embedded deep in this writer’s psyche.

Ditto with frequent Aussie tourist Sir Elton John, who threw the much revered, sadly neglected Oklahoma icon a lifebuoy after a South African safari in January 2009.

Just 12 months later, the knight spent four days writing ten songs with Russell, John’s writing partner Bernie Taupin and Texan producer T Bone Burnett at Village Recorders in Los Angeles. But fate almost ended John’s reunion with mentor Russell, 68, who had a five-hour brain surgery a week before the recording. Luckily, Russell, unlike producer Burnett’s guitarist Stephen Bruton on the Crazy Heart movie soundtrack, lived to celebrate his resurrection.

Indeed, that said, it’s no surprise a hefty gospel rhythm method drives this 14-song train from Russell penned entrée If It Wasn’t For Bad to not so cryptic finale In The Hands Of Angels.

Don’t, however, get the impression this is a morose melange from heaven’s gate – the duo have a vast cast on the uplifting Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes, Hey Ahab, A Dream Come True and boogie woogie gem Monkey Suit.

It’s not just the twin pianists propelling duelling drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner (a Russell band member in his Shelter Records-era that produced classics A Song For You and This Masquerade). Neil Young is third vocalist on Gone To Shiloh and Russ Pahl and Robert Randolph underpin Jimmie Rodgers’s Dream and revamped 1966-gospel hymn There’s No Tomorrow with pedal steel guitar.

Booker T Jones, whose MG’s have enjoyed success since 1962, adds soulful organ to The Best Part Of The Day and I Should Have Sent Roses and Brian Wilson is guest vocalist on evocative ballad When Love Is Dying. To use a sporting analogy, this is definitely a team effort, with guitarist Marc Ribot and acoustic bassist Dennis Crouch, a dynamic horn section and small gospel choir spreading the word, and the work load.

It’s a tribute to Burnett and John (who first worked with Russell and Joe Cocker four decades ago) that we celebrate not just the re-union, but The Union.