Who are these guys? Seventy-year-old rockers who just won't quit, that much is obvious. Otherwise, this is a perfect pairing of legendary musicians, both of whom have used a dizzying array of aliases — Leon Russell released multiple albums as his country-music alter ego Hank Wilson, and Dylan actually appeared in director Sam Peckinpah's 1973 epic Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid as a character named Alias. Unfortunately, both are notorious for giving half-hearted live performances devoid of meaningful audience contact. Adding to the unpredictability: Tuesday's show in New Orleans will be only the second of 20-plus tour dates scheduled for the intriguing double bill.
Dylan's public profile has been shaped to such a great extent by his own shape-shifting leaps of aesthetic context that director Todd Haynes' 2007 indie film I'm Not There used six actors (including Cate Blanchett and the late Heath Ledger) to play Dylan during different phases of his life and work. For his part, Russell looks today, and has almost always looked, like a man disguised in a long white wig and beard and dark glasses, an escapee from the ZZ Top compound. His 55-year career in music has seen him play diverse roles, ranging from much-in-demand sideman, bandleader and hit songwriter ("Tight Rope," "A Song for You," "This Masquerade") to low-profile rock star, forgotten legend and, now, resurrected rock 'n' roll hero.
Russell played obscure one-nighters and released a string of straight-to-remainder albums during the 30 or so lost years between his last hit album, 1979's One for the Road (with Willie Nelson), and last year's Elton John-initiated collaboration that resulted in The Union. This year, Russell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, honored by the release of an updated and expanded Best of Leon Russell, and signed a deal for a new solo album. Now, he's on board Dylan's Never Ending Tour.
Why should fans expect a good show? The San Antonio Express' Robert Johnson notes the Dylan/Russell co-billing occurs in sync with the 40th anniversary of rock's first mega-benefit, George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, which is where Dylan and Russell first met. "Leon [may be] listed as 'special guest,'" Johnson writes, "but surely they'll play together at some point." Surely? Certainly could be.
A chatty and joke-cracking Russell delivered the goods at a House of Blues appearance here in February. Recent reviews from Australia also noted a light-hearted and garrulous Russell.
I saw Dylan in Little Rock, Ark., in 2005 during his summer tour with Willie Nelson. I caught his post-Hurricane Katrina show at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. In both cases, I thought he rocked the house. I'd gladly settle for a strong showing from both parties, capped by Russell sitting in on "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." There's a stellar interpretation on the reissued Best of Leon Russell.