Leon Russell Brings the Vibes
1974-02-04, Missouri Arena, St. Louis, MO
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The list of music stars who attended Dylan and The Band’s comeback tour is long. Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Cher, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, Joan Baez, and on and on. But only one musician actually sat in. Not in New York or Los Angeles, but in St. Louis. And that musician was…
… I don’t know why I’m building to a big reveal, it’s literally in the headline …
Russell and his band had recorded with Bob a few years earlier for the Greatest Hits II sessions. I spoke with one of those players, drummer Jim Keltner, about it. He told me:
My memories of that session, they're like a dream really. I was sitting at the drums and Leon was playing and we all joined in. I looked over and I saw Bob standing facing the wall. I could see his lips moving. He was writing on a tablet, I think. I thought, "Wow, he's writing the lyrics as we're playing." He might have been adjusting some of the lyrics, rearranging some things to fit the groove. That blew my mind.
“Sit in” is maybe a strong word for what Leon Russell did at the late show in St. Louis. “Wandered onstage with a beer” would be more precise. Even though his musical contributions were limited to singing along on the chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone” when Bob pulled him to the mic, he seems to have brought a jolt of energy to the proceedings—and this just one show after I was writing about how Bob and The Band seemed exhausted.
Listen to the crowd explosion when Russell wanders onstage near the end of “Rainy Day Women.” Dylan shouts “Leon Russell!” but it’s almost drowned out by the audience, who clearly needs no introduction. Then listen to the “It Ain’t Me Babe” that follows. With Leon just chilling onstage, Bob brings more bite to the song than it’s had in ages, slicing through even the murky recording.
Here’s how the Kansas City Times review described Russell’s cameo:
Leon Russell, rock musician and close friend of Dylan’s, danced out onto the stage, sipping a beer. Dylan smiled and the fans again jumped to their feet.
Russell wore his shoulder-length blond hair under a huge, tan cowboy hat. A blue pin proclaiming “Hillbilly Power” was tacked on to the pocket of his brown, suede coat. He danced around stage, mimicking a southern belle, driving bursts of laughter from the crowd.
Just look at the photos, both the one up top and a few more below capturing Leon’s two onstage appearances. Notice what Dylan is doing in all of them? Grinning. By all accounts, his own included, this tour could be a grind. They’re playing a ton of dates in giant soulless arenas, and it looks like hard work. He seems to get a real kick out of having an irreverent and maybe-drunk goofball razzing him onstage. As Bill Janovitz writes in his great new Leon Russell bio, “[Russell] was one of the few people confident enough to get that close to the bard, never mind audaciously touch his hair as he sang his signature song.”
Note: Russell appeared twice during the show, once during “Rainy Day Women” and again during “Like a Rolling Stone.” You can tell which photo comes from which using that old adage: “If Leon’s got a beer, it’s the first sit-in here. If Bob’s wearing shades, it’s the second in spades.”
At one point Leon plopped his cowboy hat right on Bob’s head:
There’s even some very grainy video where you can see Leon hanging onstage while the band plays “Like a Rolling Stone” (he shows up around 50 seconds in, making his second appearance of the night, and musses Bob’s hair at the 1:41 mark):
Why was Leon Russell in St. Louis? He wasn’t on tour there as far as I can tell. Perhaps it was simply the closest show to his Tulsa home base (though still almost a 6-hour drive). Who knows? The point is, he showed up and gave everyone’s spirits a boost. Even if Leon’s contribution was less musical and more “good vibes,” during a time when clearly the musicians’ spirits have started to flag, good vibes count for a lot.
PS. As a fun bonus, newsletter reader Bruce Spizer has shared some killer never-seen B&W photos he took at the early show. Thanks Bruce! All photos copyright 2024 Bruce Spizer, beatle.net.
And, one more, look who was in the audience (rather than onstage) at the early show: