By Rikki Schneiderman
The Westcott Theater is hardly a mile from the main campus of Syracuse University, but the crowd that gathered outside of the venue this Tuesday was nearly two generations older than the average college student. Fans donning old tie-dye T-shirts and orthopedic footwear shuffled into the theater this Tuesday at far past what’s probably their recommended bedtime to watch the timeless Leon Russell.
Russell, who was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in spring of last year, is one of the few musicians to hold a successful music career for over fifty years. Throughout his five decades on the music scene, he has not only made a name for himself as a solo artist, but also as a collaborator with artists such as the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Elton John. In fact, Russell and John released a duet album less than two years ago, and the single “If It Wasn’t For Bad” earned the two a Grammy nomination.
The honor of opening for such a legend fell to The Vanderbuilts, a local Syracuse band composed of five students from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The band’s new-age sound starkly contrasted the elderly crowd they faced. Nevertheless, The Vanderbuilts delivered, emulating The Killers right up to charismatic frontman Sam Kogon. Kogon and fiddler Aya Yamamoto, who commanded the stage presence of the group, proved to be the band’s most valuable assets. On “Come Tomorrow,” Kogon channeled a young Brandon Flowers, mingling excellently with Yamamoto’s fiddling and the banjo talent of Dave Riddell. The standout track, however, was “I’m Coming Home.” Reminiscent of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, the band heightened its grandeur with strong guitar riffs and Yamamoto’s impressive violin skills complimenting the drama of Kogon’s diverse vocal range.
With the wrap-up of the opening act, the crowd anxiously waited for a slow-moving half hour before an equally slow-moving main event, riding out in an electric scooter, took the stage. Russell somehow managed to situate himself behind the piano–a difficult task, since the musician recently turned 70–but signs of age and gray hairs soon melted away as the band started up. Constructed of three “young” (i.e. age 40) guitarists, a drummer, and, of course, Russell, the group seamlessly transitioned from one Leon hit to another. The way the crowd responded wouldn’t have been out of place coming from SU students at a basketball game.
In the opener, “Delta Lady”, audience members swayed and sang along with Russell’s signature bluesy drawl. On “Hummingbird”, which was later into the night, the rowdier members of the crowd jumped up and started to dance. Each song featured a break dedicated to a Russell piano solo, confirming that well-embedded musical skill transcends the barrier of age. The standout performance was Russell’s upbeat cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”, featuring strong precussion and an overall fast rhythm to maintain the liveliness of the room.
In between songs, Russell shared fond memories with his audience, and cracked some jokes. “I just can’t seem to leave women alone…I have thirty-five children,” he said. The joke resonated well with the audience, who laughed and clapped. In fact, the applause never died down at any point during the entire performance, and neither did the electricity in the room.