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We went into town last Saturday evening to see Leon Russell at the State Theater.  It was a still, crisp night, with ice crusting on the snow.  The men’s basketball game was letting out at the Bryce Jordan Center as we passed, and the long line of cars poked along Park Avenue, white headlights streaming for a mile ahead.

We were running late and so we changed our plans for a slow Italian meal at Mario and Luigi’s and headed downtown to find what was open.  We tried the new Thai place on Allen Street, but there was a wait, so my wife and I ended up at the Green Bowl, eating stir fry elbow to elbow with a crowd of college students.  They glowed with health and confidence, and I envied them their clear skin and shining hair, while the room buzzed with the energy of their great expectations.

Leon Russell had been a beautiful, slender youth forty years ago when he put on a top hat and led the ragged carnival called Mad Dogs and Englishmen across the country to the beat of his cacophonous keyboards. He was the king of the session musicians, maybe the greatest rock and roll keyboardist of them all.  Other singers made his songs into hits, but none of them had his way with the rolling thunder of his music and voice.

The Leon who made his way onto the stage with the help of a cane was not the slender circus ringmaster that all of us middle aged hipsters and one-time tied-dyed hippies had longed to see. Time had turned the ringmaster into a monument, a sitting Buddha in a cowboy hat and sunglasses. He seemed to be carved out of white jade as he settled in behind the electric piano.

Then his hands moved and the sound exploded for ninety minutes with barely a pause for breath, either for Leon or the rest of us leaning forward into the light.  He moved only from the elbows to the fingers, and his voice struggled to climb over the piano and the four-piece band of young players in motley caps who were strutting his former part on the stage.

I worried for his voice as he flew through a dozen of his best known songs, dropping out notes and syllables, the lyrics barely audible.  The music soared, but the voice was struggling.  Then he sent the band off, and he was alone with the piano.  The old, beloved voice came back stronger, and the words were clear as he slowed the moment and swam up through the pool of dreams in Masquerade and A Song for You, the way I had hoped to hear them in the weeks I had waited for his arrival.

We walked out onto the frozen sidewalks of downtown, hundreds of us walking carefully for fear of falling, shuffling like old people. We turned down the block at Fraser Street where Leon’s tour bus was parked.  I hoped someone was holding his elbow to keep him from toppling over and shattering on the ground.

 

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I’m sitting here watching the snow fall on the hedges by the road, hoping the roads are clear enough for Leon’s bus to make it through.  But maybe he is already here, having driven through the early hours from Pittsburgh where he played last night.  Maybe he’s getting up and having breakfast at the Corner Room, his long white hair causing a stir as he makes his way through the crowded restaurant to a table by the window.

If all goes well, we will be sitting in the front row of the balcony at the State Theater in downtown State College at 8 tonight, and Leon Russell will sit down at the piano and that waterfall of notes that opens “A Song for You” will tumble down, and the lights will go low and a spotlight will shine on his white hat, white suit,white hair.

With some songs you recall the very first time you heard them, and that’s true for “A Song for You.”  I was lying in the darkness in the house on Europe Street in Baton Rouge, LA, with the radio on softly, maybe at midnight.  I heard that tumble of notes and then that strange, archaic voice with the undefinable Southern/Black Gospel accent croaking out this love song about loving you in a place where there’s no space or time.  It was haunting if you happened to be living in a tumbledown house in the old section of town, not far from the Mississippi, with the fires of the oil refineries on the far side of the river turning the night sky pink and red.

I was taking some writing classes at LSU, working on a manuscript that I thought of as an existential suspense novel that would finally peter out after 200 pages.  But the effort of imagination it required made everything else in my life incredibly intense and concentrated.  Songs and books, car rides to New Orleans or across the Atchafalya Basin, afternoons at the Cotton Club eating soft shell crabs, writing short stories about Florida and Tennessee that would be torn apart by would-be writers ten years younger than me but that I still hold dear, the heat and the smell of magnolia, jamabalya and creole seasoning – everything was seared into a track of my memory.  A lot of those memories are evoked when Leon’s piano trickles down those notes.

The snow is falling fast and there is still a long driveway to clear before it’s time to go.  Hang on Leon, we’re coming.  Don’t start without me.

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