Segarini: Paul and Leon – On the Deck with Ducks

This originally ran in July of 2011 in an online magazine. Chick Singers etc Part 2 will run next Sunday. I apologize for the delay….this DOES contain a snippet of something we will be getting into in depth next Sunday.

I am not a critic. I’m especially not a Critic. I think the best way to criticize something you personally dislike, especially in the media, is to simply not mention it. Why give something credibility that grates against your grain like fingernails on a chalkboard or ketchup on a perfectly cooked slab of Prime Rib? Truth be told, I AM capable of being a highly sardonic, and mean spirited asshat when it comes to cutting someone or something off at the knees if I find it non-deserving. I do have an opinion, which I have no problem sharing with good friends (those who know me well and understand me and my sense of humour) around a kitchen table or after several drinks in a bar, but which I would rather not blurt out in public, (although occasionally, a really bad guy feeling or an elevated alcohol content will lead me to eviscerate a less-than-satisfying target if I find he, she, or it, annoying enough).

I used to be well known for my maliciousness when it came to what I considered to be less-than-worthy claptrap, whether it was music, a movie, TV show, people, or just the intolerable “popular” junk I find rampant on today’s ‘dog and pony show’ landscape, or committee-think tank detritus we constantly have shoveled down our gullets. From snack foods to entertainment to political positioning, we are surrounded by mostly moronic hype, paranoid fear mongering, and hipster snobbishness that we are supposed to respond to by joining the appropriate group of believers. There are nearly 7 Billion of us wriggly little pink hiccups scurrying all over this mudball these days, and not one of us thinks exactly like another. Signing up to be for or against something seems foolish and incredibly arrogant to me. As proven by the current state of affairs on this mortal coil, collectively, we don’t know shit…so why do so many people insist that they do?

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Not a day goes by that I am not accosted on Facebook by people who have invested themselves in this or that and want me to join them in their rage against the machine. It is a constant barrage of causes to join, organizations to tout, philosophical teachings to share, fortune cookie wisdom and penny arcade predictions to wring our hands over, financial pleas, status updates to share or face damnation by the righteous Facebook Gods, YouTube videos we have all seen a million times, and heart warming (almost always manufactured) stories of hero puppies, brave little girls, or evil being triumphed over through good deeds and Shirley Temple gumption. It is enough to make you want to throw your bloody computer off a cliff. It’s not the computer, or the internet, or even Facebook’s fault. It is the people whose opinions are so weak that they must corral the rest of us into thinking like they do, to verify their opinions as the right ones, to validate what they believe, and to join their march for or against whatever piece of spinach they have stuck between their teeth. Sorry…No can do.

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My dad used to tell me that instead of leaning over the back yard fence complaining about your neighbor’s lawn needing to be mowed and telling them to tidy up their yard, you should mow your own lawn and tidy up your own back yard, and if we all did that, everyone would have a great looking yard, and we would all benefit individually AND collectively. The old man knew what he was talking about. So instead of arguing about bicycle lanes and calling the Mayor names, people would be better served doing what they think is the right thing and let the rest of us do the same. They will find like-minded folks like themselves without bugging the rest of us to do like they do, think like they think. I, for one, would be ever so grateful if people just did what they believed in and left me to decide what to do with my time on my own. Until you know the person and understand their motivation and why they think the way they do, I would find it awfully difficult to form an opinion of not only what they are espousing, but the very person themselves, or the cause they champion, and the same goes for musical advice from people whose backgrounds and musical tastes are a mystery to me. I DO respect other people’s opinions if they honestly believe in them themselves, and would never try to change them. I just don’t want them to try and force me to change mine. I will share my opinion with you but in no way should you feel obligated to agree with me, or get angry and frustrated if I don’t agree with you…which brings me to Leon Russell and Paul James.

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Unless you are a Baby Boomer or a Southern Baptist, it is doubtful you know much about Leon Russell. Ditto for Paul James unless you were a Toronto Club Rat during the ‘70s and ‘80s, are a part of the Canadian blues scene, or happen to be Bob Dylan.

Both of these gentlemen share common ground when it comes to their livelihood…they make music for a living, real, honest, original, and heartfelt music. Reason enough for me to take the evening off from planning the Wacker reunion next weekend, (a gathering we’ve been talking about for 15 years), and taking a bus, subway, streetcar, another bus and a 10 minutes stroll to The Sound Academy, a fine venue with a postcard view of Toronto and its environs, but an  ungainly location in the middle of nowhere, the price you pay for the wonderful view from the massive patio that cradles the club at the edge of Lake Ontario. This night, the perfect weather and the artists who would be providing the music more than made up for the journey involved that always seems more like a high school field trip than going out to hear a band. More than once I wished I had packed a sandwich and a paperback book. Once we got to the SoundAcademy it was easy to forget the process of getting there, especially when the reward for making the effort starts before the musicians even hit the stage. A minute after Jade and I arrived we were seated on the deck facing the city across the lake sipping on 2 ice cold tall boy Rolling Rocks and sharing a really good poutine. Jade took pictures of a duck and her little ducklings, who floated by on a swimming lesson, lined up in a perfectly straight line, single file, like a row of soft, fuzzy, Christmas ornaments. You can also watch planes land at the IslandAirport, and when the lights of Toronto suddenly came on all at once, it seemed almost magical, the opening act for the music to come…and the music came minutes later in the form of one Paul James.

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Paul James, for those of you who don’t know, is a journeyman musician and lifer that I have had the pleasure to know since the late ‘70s. He is everything a real musician has to be; dedicated, talented, hard working and doing what he loves best. There is no façade or veneer to Paul, no pretense. He is who he is and makes no effort to embellish that reality with rock star posturing or self-important snobbishness. He is one of us and happy to be so, but onstage, Paul is as much a rock star as any I have known, and much more so than musicians with half the talent who, because of their popularity, have accepted the mantle and act the part. I’m sure players like that don’t have half the fun Paul does when he plays and instead, think more about the lighting and the poses they strike, than they do the giddy-up joy of entertaining a room full of music-driven fans. The band is tight, Paul is all smiles and friendliness, and the music is just that; rocking, real, and relaxed with a finely honed edge that comes with decades of playing and a lifetime of practice. When the band launches into the Everly Brother’s classic, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, you can hear just how much Paul loves the song. It is more like his heritage than a song learned to curry favour with his audience, an indefinable but palpable example of his love of the song, and his understanding of the feeling the song should evoke, just not the notes. It is a fine set, and sets the stage for Russell as well as making Paul some new fans. Q107 deserves kudos for the shows they put on at the Sound Academy. They are always sure to include one of Toronto’s local acts that were broken on the station back in the day, and that could be utilized to their benefit by playing people like Paul on the station a little more than they do currently. Randy Charlton, the manager of the SoundAcademy (and who is recovering from hip replacement surgery he had just seven weeks ago) also puts out comfortable chairs and couches for the Q crowd. In this age of removing bar stools and seating in bars to accommodate more people, it was a real pleasure to be able to sit down and enjoy the show, and I’m sure the rest of the crowd (read: older) appreciate it too.

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I have been a fan of Leon Russell’s since his work on Gary Lewis and the Playboys records back in the ‘60s. In fact, he was on so many records I’ve loved over the years I don’t think I could list all of them here without a pot of coffee and a nap. Instead, go here and when you’re finished reading that, come back and read the rest of this. I’m going to step outside for a smoke and maybe go to the bathroom.

Okay, you’re back….

I ran into Leon a couple of times back in the late ‘60s. If you name check the big artists of that decade and the 1970s, he either played with them, arranged for them, recorded with them, or had one of his songs covered by them. The first time I spoke with him was when he was doing the Delaney and Bonnie album for Elektra Records in L.A. I think it was Bonnie that introduced me to him. He and Rita Coolidge had been an item when they came out to L.A from TulsaOklahoma, and it was the first record they worked on together. The album, ‘Accept No Substitute’, was (and is) one of the most influential albums of the rock era, actually changing the direction of the Rolling Stones and creating a new bunch of ‘Wrecking Crew’ musicians like Jimmy Keltner, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and others. Leon had also written and recorded, along with Mark Benno (who rented my house when I left L.A) one of my favourite records,

‘Thieves In the Choir’, a soulful pop song I consider to be the coolest non-Beatle Beatle records of all time. The second time we spoke was during the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour he put together for Joe Cocker. He and Rita and a couple of other friends (drummer Jimmy Gordon and percussionists Bobby Hall Porter and Sandy Konikoff) were on the tour with Leon when they played a date in either Upper state New York or Massachusetts a day after the tour Roxy was on with the Jefferson Airplane played there. We had a day off and hung around to see the show. It was well worth the wait. Leon Russell is still well worth the wait.

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When Leon took the stage looking all the world like a countrified Dumbledore and sat down at the piano  you just knew you were going to hear some fine playing and did we ever. The band was prime. Despite ‘health problem’ rumours had circulated earlier in the evening, Russell looked and sounded as good as he ever had. Armed with over an hours worth of great songs, he delivered the kind of set most artists just don’t have the catalogue for.  Like Paul James, Leon Russell is a musician first and a star second. It’s all about the music, and that is as it should be. An excellent night all around.

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Later, after the show, Paul James, Jim Zeppa, Jade and I were joined on the patio by Joan Besen, the great piano player and founding member of Prairie Oyster, and Kate White from Trick or Treat Management. While we were talking, Toronto’s original Kid Rock (Keith Correa) popped up and started taking pictures of everybody. Paul grinned and bared it and I was struck by the biggest difference between Leon Russell and Paul James.

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After Paul’s set, I spotted him off to the side of the stage talking to fans and signing CDs that they had purchased from him. He took time for every one. There was no entourage, no handler, no merch table…just Paul and a bag of CDs, a pen, and a big grin. Leon, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen, either before or after his set. No meet and greet, no backstage access, no Leon. This doesn’t mean that Russell is a jerk, or a primadonna, or anything else. It just means he and James are different from one another. Leon chose to keep to himself, Paul chose to say hi to anyone who wanted to speak to him, and sit down and have a beer and enjoy the evening. As much as I would have loved to ask Leon about Mark Benno and Asylum Choir, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and especially the Delaney and Bonnie sessions, I was just thrilled to hear the man do what he does.  Seeing Paul was an unexpected bonus. I didn’t know he was on the bill. Seeing him on a big stage with great sound and lights was a far cry from seeing him playing while jumping from table top to table top in a packed club (The Midwich Cukoo, the first place I ever saw him play, and ran at the time by our friend Jim Zeppa) but his music and his passion were exactly as I had remembered them. Paul is one of Bob Dylan’s favourite people, and you can see why. I’d like to think that Leon would have fit right in at our table there on the patio. Talking about the good old days, enjoying a cold beer and a perfect view, and comfortable that yes, you can be different, you can be on opposite ends of an issue or an argument, but when you sit down around a table and be yourself, those things don’t mean anything. We find ourselves by being ourselves, and that is how we find each other. We don’t have to think alike or agree on anything at all as long as we are comfortable in our own skin.

What a great night. Pictured: Paul James, Bob, and Jim Zeppa

Segarini’s regular column appears here every Monday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, and The Segarini Band and nominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late Great Movies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now 85), and now publishes, edits, and writes for DBAWIS, continues to write music, make music, and record.

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