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Willie Nelson and Leon Russell Reunite for Two Shows at Ventura Theatre

The blues-rock veterans will perform for the first time since 1979, when they recorded 'One for the Road.'


Connie Nelson, Willie Nelson's ex-wife, can remember the moment Willie became a Leon Russell fan. "I was driving out in the middle of nowhere and had just bought Leon's new 'Carney' tape about 1972 or '73 and was listening to it," she said. "I stopped in the middle of the Texas desert, pulled the car next to a pay phone, called Willie and said, 'You've got to hear this.' 'Carney' was blasting from the car radio. Later, they met and Willie started to grow his hair long soon after that."

So here it is, about 25 years later and Country Music Hall of Famer Nelson will be teaming up with his blues-rocker buddy Russell tonight for two acoustic shows at the Ventura Theatre.

Backing the duo will be Nelson's familiar extended family, his band of more than 20 years: his sister, Bobbie Nelson (keyboards), Paul English (drums), Jody Payne (guitar), Mickey Raphael (harmonica) and Bee Spears (bass). Opening for the guys and rounding out the "family" will be Nelson's daughter, Paula Nelson, performing with former Stray Cat bass player, Lee Rocker.

With the exception of an impromptu December gig at the Coach House in Orange County (also owned by Ventura Theatre proprietor Gary Folgner), the start of this one-week tour around Southern California is the first time these grizzled veterans have performed together since 1979. It was then that they recorded "One for the Road," a contender for the County Music Assn. best album of the year.

These two have been so busy that they've had trouble connecting for two decades. And the pace picks up right after these shows: Russell takes off to tour Japan, and Nelson launches a reggae album--that's right, reggae.

So while this gig may be a big deal to fans, Nelson described tonight's unplugged concert in typically understated fashion as "a guy, a guitar and a piano player."

"We're both on stage at the same time. Leon plays behind me. Then I play behind him and try not to get in his way," said Nelson from his tour bus parked near Austin, Texas.

But "unplugged" doesn't mean the Red-Headed Stranger and raspy-voiced keyboard-meister won't be generating a lot of electricity.


For all the hoopla about Nelson the songwriter, he's also got a distinctive acoustic nylon-string country guitar style that inspired producer Don Was to dub him "the great minimalist."

"I've always enjoyed playing acoustic," said Nelson. And he plans to play plenty of his hits and new songs on that beloved Martin N-20 classical guitar he keeps on life support.

"I like the feel of it. Even with the hole I wore through it, it sounds better than most guitars that start off with just one big round hole in 'em," Nelson said. And he is plenty eager to play with Russell.

"We are old friends," said Nelson. "Leon came down to the first Fourth of July picnic that I had. And it was the first time that the rock 'n' roll crowd had mixed in with the cowboy crowd--the hippies and the rednecks--we were called. So, thanks to Leon, all those wild things started happening."

Russell still has the white ZZ Top look-alike mane and beard, but he has traded the megawatt gear for equipment that uses fewer amps. Still, fans should have no trouble recognizing his innovative keyboard style and hits such as "Tightrope" and that introspective ballad covered by Ray Charles, "A Song for You."

Russell's career started early when the Lawton, Okla., native lied about his age to gain entrance to a Tulsa nightclub to play keyboards with Jerry Lee Lewis. "Actually, I didn't listen to country music very much in Oklahoma. I listened to blues and rock 'n' roll. My first job in a country band was after I moved to California."

Known as an innovative musician and songwriter, Russell hit big in the 1970s in collaborating with a diverse group of artists including Nelson, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, The Byrds, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Phil Spector. He has dozens of song credits.

In 1994, Russell recorded his first album in a decade, "Anything Can Happen," with co-producer and fellow musician Bruce Hornsby. He also played keyboards on a George Jones MCA release. That same year, Russell diverged from piano to do his latest album, "Blues."

"It's principally a guitar blues album," he said. "I've wanted to make one of those for years and finally got around to it. And I just finished a piano album--all instrumentals--called 'Almost Piano.' It's not on any label or in general distribution yet--just on my own label."


Russell said his home recording studio and his son, Teddy Jack, who serves as sound engineer, have helped the songwriting process. "I sort of have become computer literate in the last few years," he said. "I used to write notebooks full of lyrics and I'd lose 'em. Now I've got 'em all on computer so when I'm on the road I'm writing lyrics all the time. When I get back from the studio, I then lay down tracks and fit the words to those tracks."

But he still needs to be inspired. "They all are, in the main, real songs about real incidents," he said, though he is not the sort to turn the pain of a broken relationship into a great song.

"Well that's too high a price to pay, I think." Still, he said, most of his songs have a strong autobiographical element. "It just turns out that way. They seem to be better songs. And if they aren't from life, I have trouble deciding if I have any connection with them or not."


* WHO: Willie Nelson and Leon Russell with opening act Paula Nelson and Lee Rocker.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St.

* WHEN: 7 and 9:30 tonight.

* TICKETS: $29.50.

* CALL: 648-1888.

* FYI: At the time of publication, the 7 p.m. show was sold out, but tickets were still available for the 9:30 p.m. show

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