You Be the Critic: Decent Leon Russell performance but bad sound

Posted by George Nagel on September 17, 2013 

(Note: The following was sent in as a You Be the Critic review by longtime Anchorage music fan George Nagel.)

I’m going to give a thumbs-up to Leon Russell’s concert (Discovery Theater, Friday), but not by much.

I didn’t catch the name(s) of the opening act.  From left to right:  male, upright bass; female, guitarist and lead singer; male, mandolin and harmony vocals.  They are young, they are local, and they are good. [Editor's note: The opening act was the Anna Lynch Band.]

Those who have read my previous concert reviews know that I always comment upon the sound.  Whether the overall volume is too high or too low, whether individual instruments and voices are heard or not heard, whether lyrics are understandable or unintelligible are crucial factors in any live performance.

Mr. Russell, accompanied by a drummer, a bassist, and a multi-instrumentalist, opened his show with a rollicking medley.  I thought the volume was just about right, but I learned later that some in the audience thought the show was too loud (of course you didn’t wear earplugs at Woodstock, but you need to now). 

Another problem was immediately obvious:  Leon’s lyrics were 95% incomprehensible.  Was it the equipment?  The sound mix?  Poor enunciation?  I suspect the former, for when Mr. Russell spoke to the crowd (finally!) his microphone was hissing and popping.  The problem wasn’t as bad later in the show when the band left the stage to the headliner, alone with his keyboards.  But by that time, more than a few patrons had walked out.

Each of the other 3 musicians sang background vocals, but were sometimes difficult to hear.  Even worse:  a pedal steel guitar, played on several songs, was almost never heard.  Soundman, this is on you.

Mr. Russell has a distinctive singing voice; even with your eyes closed, you’ll know it’s Leon, and I was hit with a wave of nostalgia.  But as often happens with older singers, his vibrato warbles off key.

I appreciated his song selection:  in addition to Leon Russell hits, we were treated to tunes originally performed by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, the Beatles, and the Temptations (however, I prefer the originals to his versions, except for one).

I’m no keyboard expert, but his playing sounded quite good to me.  He did something I have never seen before:  while his left hand was playing piano, his right hand was producing organ sounds on the same keyboard.  I also suspect that at times he was utilizing foot pedals to play certain melodies.

Although there wasn’t much of it, his chatting to the audience seemed relaxed and genuine.  His encore was unique:  instead of walking off stage and waiting perfunctorily for the audience to demand more, he merely stood up, bowed, sat right back down, and played a couple more songs.


Although the audience was definitely an older crowd, they booed when told they were not allowed to dance in the aisles.  They enjoyed the show anyway.  Thanks to Whistling Swan Productions for bringing Leon Russell to Anchorage for the first time since 1972.

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