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Barry Levenson – The Late Show

Rip Cat Records

http://www.barrylevenson.com

15 Tracks, 77:20

Barry Levenson is a producer, arranger, studio musician, and live performer. He is originally from Pittsburgh, studied music in Boston, and currently works in Los Angeles. He’s played with Big Mama Thornton, Canned Heat, and Lowell Fulson. He’s been around the geographical and musical block a few times. This becomes evident in the first few minutes of his new CD.

The disc begins with “Riley’s Shuffle/Blue Tears” which despite the title sounds more like Freddie King than the fabled Blues Boy. It also shows that Levenson has an affinity for the Lone Star State, throwing in licks reminiscent of other famous Texans like Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Jimmie Vaughan. Levenson’s sweet Stratocaster tone even conjures hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s gentler moments as this Texas barn burner settles into the smoldering second half. The “Blue Tears” portion of the track features some delicate fretwork and shimmering tones worthy of Jeff Beck and Roy Buchanan.

The funky R&B strut of “Whole Lotta Blues” brings the music of Memphis through Detroit, on to Chicago O’Hare and flies it out to sunny California. One of a handful of vocal tracks on a mostly instrumental album, “Whole Lotta Blues” features Mary Williams’ smooth voice singing a chorus that perfectly sums up the disc: “For a little bit of money you get a whole lotta blues.”

The Late Show seems to be a metaphor for a variety show on the old late night TV line-ups when there were only three channels and half the sets were black & white and the rest were pieces of furniture big enough to solve the homeless problem. There had to be something for everyone. With Levenson’s Late Show, listeners get something for and from everyone. Levenson’s “bits” showcase the styles of Muddy Waters on “One For Muddy,” the cool sounds of Albert Collins permeate much of the album but he gets a standout homage on “Turn Up The A.C.,” the New Orleans funk of The Meters gets the Buddy Guy treatment on “Meters Runnin’,” and The Late Show closes with a sublime tribute to Grant Green on “Green Is Blue.”

Such direct emulation can often be hamfisted but Barry Levenson pulls it off with aplomb. He has his own style and is a supremely skillful instrumentalist who manages to blend the music of his heroes with his own, creating something fresh that nods to the past but keeps a firm hold on the present and future. Not only is Levenson a remarkable guitarist, he is also a gifted writer. Blues instrumentals can often be used as an excuse to show off, play fast, dazzle for a few minutes, lose focus and fizzle out altogether. 64th notes are exciting but you can’t really hear them all. Barry knows this and has constructed instrumentals with a variety of styles, all with lyrical melodies that’ll you’ll want to sing. Some trick you into hearing phantom syllables like words that dangle on the tip of your tongue, slightly out of reach of your brain but there none-the-less. “Rush Hour” is fine example of this phenomenon where Levenson combines minor key blues ala Otis Rush with a little Fleetwood Mac via Santana. The melodies carry the familiar pieces to an epicenter of deconstruction where something new and ethereal emerges.

Levenson uses his considerable skills as an arranger in an inspired way offering a fresh approach to music that is now a century old. The Late Show indeed offers something for everyone, from the virtuoso instrumentals, gospel infused blues, Chicago stomps, and Texas shuffles to the jazzy vamps and vocal highlights including longtime collaborators Johnny Dyer and Finis Tasby. The Late Show is a nearly complete experience. The only thing missing is the color test screen and a slightly off-key horn ensemble playing a horribly loud version of the National Anthem as it goes of the air. .

Reviewer Jim Kanavy is the greatest guitar player in his house. He has been reviewing albums in his head for 30 years and in print since 2008, and is deeply committed to keeping the blues alive and thriving. For more information visit http://jimkanavy.com.

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