This will mark the historic album’s first release outside of Japan and its first time on CD anywhere. The original album was recorded live on November 8, 1973, at the historic Nippon Bukokan Hall and will see its nine tracks complemented by a bonus set of an additional seven previously unissued live performances recorded at the Sam Houston Coliseum on April 22, 1971. Liner notes for this package were penned by Leon Russell historian Steve Todoroff—author of the upcoming book Longhair Music: The Songs And Sessions Of Leon Russell—and by Rev. Patrick Henderson—a member of the touring band for the 1973 Japan tour.
In 1973, Shelter Records released the triple album Leon Live, which reached #9 on the charts in the U.S. and earned Russell a gold record. Unbeknownst to all but the most diehard Russell fans was the fact that in1974, Shelter released a completely different live album that was available only in Japan and appropriately titled Live In Japan. This recording was drawn from the first of two back-to-back dates recorded in 1973 at the Budokan, at a time when Leon was at the top of his game as a rock performer.
Opening with the Rev. Patrick Henderson composition “Heaven,” featuring Henderson’s driving piano, the backup vocals of the group Black Grass, and Russell’s super-tight Shelter People band, Russell saunters out on the stage partway through the song (listen for the applause), grabs his Les Paul guitar, then jumps atop Henderson’s piano, and joins in with his distinctive guitar licks. Tutored by legendary guitarist James Burton in the early ’60s, and perhaps inspired by the work of Jimmy Page, Russell’s guitar style has always sounded unique.
The mood shifts with the next song, a medley that begins with the familiar Harburg/Arlen standard “Over The Rainbow,” performed by the Black Grass background singers, which then transitions into the obscure Russell composition “God Put A Rainbow,” with Russell finally joining in on an occasional vocal.
Before the overly-polite Japanese audience has much time to applaud, Russell jumps right into “Queen Of The Roller Derby,” one of the more popular songs from the original Leon Live release, and the show starts to rock “Leon style,” transitioning into the familiar “Proud Mary” intro to the Russell/Greg Dempsey composition “Roll Away The Stone.”
Next comes a rare live version of Russell’s classic rock anthem, “Tight Rope.” “Sweet Emily” is next, followed by the driving “Alcatraz,” which features some blistering guitar licks by guitarist Wayne Perkins. A Jimmy Reed composition follows, “You Don’t Have To Go,” a personal favorite of Russell’s that he began performing publicly early on in his solo career.
For the show’s encore, Russell performs another medley, beginning with a portion of his classic composition “A Song For You,” before breaking into his “Of Thee I Sing,” and finishing up with the Lester Flatt standard, “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which incidentally was the opening track from Russell’s 1973 album featuring his country persona, Hank Wilson’s Back Vol. 1, and a song he still performs in concert to this day.
“The concert was amazing. The concertgoers were with us from the start. Leon had earned his reputation as a great bandleader; yet to me, he was more—he was a great Pentecostal preacher in the black tradition,” said Rev. Patrick Henderson. “His cadence was impeccable, his voice rising and dropping, flowing with full power, seducing and commanding, his leadership undeniable, taking no prisoners. The concert quickly became a revival of sorts; the usually staid Japanese youth were dancing in the aisles.”
“I am excited to hear the Live In Japan album myself, having not heard these tapes in so many years,” said Russell. “The band on the show was very inspiring to me, and I think this is the kind of Leon Russell show that fans remember best. Japan is one of my favorite places on Earth.”
The historic Sam Houston Coliseum, up until its demolition in 1998, hosted some of the biggest acts in the history of rock ’n’ roll. The Beatles had their only Houston appearance at the Coliseum. Jimi Hendrix played the Coliseum three months before he died. Cream played the Coliseum on their Farewell Tour. Elvis Presley’s 1956 concert at the Coliseum ended abruptly, as he and his band were taken away by police escort just before the end of the show, after which a mob of about a 1,000 teenagers rushed the stage and destroyed the band’s instruments. And singer Johnny Ace shot himself playing Russian roulette backstage at the Coliseum on Christmas Eve, 1954.
When Leon Russell performed at the Sam Houston Coliseum on April 22, 1971, it was the first show of his 1971 U.S. tour, after he and the newly formed Shelter People band had honed their road-performing skills in late 1970 at venues up and down the West Coast, including an occasional show with fledgling singer/pianist Elton John.
These bonus tracks are extraordinary in many respects. They show a raw, gritty singer and his band just as they are taking off, making great, original music, while loving every minute of it. They also show why Russell was considered one of the greatest live acts in the annals of rock music. The bonus tracks are a great addition to an already great album, and the fact that they are of such a high quality for the era is nothing short of remarkable. The combination of Live In Japan and the Live in Houston ’71 tracks make this is a must-have for any Leon Russell fan.
Available on CD at all fine record retail outlets August 9, 2011 on Omnivore Records.