Elton John & Leon Russell, The Union

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 09.24.12 in Reviews

The Union

Elton John

Leon Russell watched Elton John make his US debut from the front of West Hollywood’s famed Troubadour nightclub in the summer of 1970. Seeing his idol a few feet away blew Elton’s mind, but not his cool — that Troubadour gig is one of rock’s most legendary star-making shows.

Two piano men unite for a mutually autumnal career highlight

Four decades later, the two piano men unite for a mutually autumnal career highlight. T Bone Burnett replaces John’s band with heavy hitters — guitarist Marc Ribot, fellow star producer Don Was on bass, steel guitar maestro Robert Randolph, Beatle pal drummer Jim Keltner and Southern soul mainstay Booker T. Jones on organ — and the eerie results take Elton way beyond his Vegas comfort zone.

Russell sets a somber, yet darkly humorous tone with “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but Elton and Bernie Taupin match his mettle with much of the rest, including the Civil War-themed “Gone to Shiloh” with Elton, Leon and Neil Young each singing a verse. The Ray Charles influence throughout is undeniable: The Union is akin to Daptone Records’ vintage R&B recreations, but with Charles replacing James Brown as the guiding artistic light.