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Rearranging Leon

Russell returns to Carrboro

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Leon Russell doesn't sound like he used to. His voice hasn't changed--it's still the same distinctive nasal yowl. His piano still sounds the same, too, that bouncy, jangly accompaniment that defined rock in the '70s, filling the charts with hits like "Delta Lady," "A Song For You" and "Hummingbird."

It's the feel that's different. Unlike most artists who make a career out of playing their bygone hits exactly the way they appeared on record decades ago, Russell rearranges. But there's no need to panic: You can figure out what's going on as soon as he starts singing. It's just a bit disconcerting for longtime Russell fans, hearing the soundtrack of their lives running at a different speed.

It's no new invention.

"I can't remember doing any of the songs of his I was familiar with like the record when I started," says Jack Wessel, Russell's bass player for the last 25 years.

He cites Russell's biggest hit, "Tightrope," and "Lady Blue" as being close to their original state, but Wessel says the rest of the stuff is done with different tempos or arrangements.

"I think a lot of times he does that to suit the band he has at any given time," he says.

When new players are around, they have to learn it from the live setting, creating their own part, and, if Russell likes what he hears, he'll let it go. After all this time, Russell's tunes and shows are works in progress. "We have a set way of doing it. Then if, by chance, you should hear a show tape from three or four years ago, you notice--the arrangements tend to evolve over time, changing with the people who come and go with the band," Wessel continues.

It was a family affair for a while. Daughters Sugaree Noel and Tina Rose were Russell's backup singers. Tina Rose had only been with the band for the last three years, but Sugaree had been performing with her father since she was 16. "That got to be seven or eight years," Wessel says. "She just felt like not doing it for awhile."

Jaime Babbit, who signed on last November, has replaced the girls. And even though Wessel says Babbit is working out well and people like her, he doesn't rule out the girls' return: "You never know when they might come back."

You won't hear anything from Russell on the subject. He hardly ever does interviews.

"I wouldn't call it a particular problem--he just has never been one to care for that kind of thing," Wessel says. "It's just something he's not comfortable doing except for every now and then."

But he does continue to put out records. Russell has had three labels over the years--Shelter, Paradise and his latest, Leon Russell Records, which put out an excellent retrospective, Signature Songs, in 2001. That record featured Leon with only a rhythm section and select guests--a "Greatest Hits" stripped to its essentials. Moonlight and Love Songs was done with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in 2002, and Russell released two records in 2003. There may be more new stuff on record soon, as Russell recently built a studio in his new house. "When he gets in off the road, what he likes best is to be able to go right into his studio and go to work until it's time to go back out," says Wessel.

And though some have said Russell can be a difficult and demanding person to work for, the bassist says he's never found him that way. "It's always been very comfortable for me," Wessel says. "He really comes from a big book of American music. I've always enjoyed his music and I've always enjoyed playing for his audience."

Leon Russell plays The ArtsCenter Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. Adam Hood opens. Tickets are $29.

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