Get Together: Banana Recalls Youngbloods Classics
Shortly after the breakup, he released an eclectic album with his Youngbloods bandmates sans Jesse Colin Young called “Mid-Mountain Ranch,” under the moniker Banana and the Bunch (a name he’d resurrected from a pre-Youngbloods folk group). Then he became a sideman — most notably as accompanist to Mimi Farina in the 1970s and ’80s, and as keyboard player for psychedelic jazz-rock ensemble Zero in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
He laid low until 2009, when he started releasing solo albums under the name Grandpa Banana. For last year’s “Down to the Roots,” Levinger used his given name, albeit with “Banana of the Youngbloods” appended. For his fifth solo album, “Get Together,” he moves “Banana” into the title to help explain that this is his lovingly crafted celebration of the Youngbloods’ 50th anniversary.
The outstanding collection of inventively reimagined and masterfully played Youngbloods songs is mostly acoustic-flavored, featuring Levinger on various five-string tenor guitars, banjo and piano. Old friends such as Ry Cooder, Duke Robillard, David Grisman and (on backing vocals for three songs) Young lend a hand. On the title cut, he’s backed by the Grand Chorus: Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur, Peter Rowan, David Nelson and others.
Good New Music caught up with Banana/Levinger via email and got some questions answered.
Q: I’m assuming that the album was recorded at Owl Mountain, because Jesse says in his note that the three songs he was involved in were recorded there. What’s the origin of the studio? Is it yours? Jesse’s? From what I can tell, co-producer/drummer Ethan Turner (Jesse’s godson, son of Rick Turner of Autosalvage) is the studio’s engineer/principal.
A: This is Jesse’s old studio just down the hill from his old house (in Inverness, Calif.). Many Youngblood recordings were made there in the early ’70s. In the fire of 1995, the house burned down but Ethan Turner was there and he singlehandedly saved the studio while all the neighboring houses around it burned to the ground. There is a huge melted shard of metal on the porch of the studio that was once a bench. Ethan has been maintaining/upgrading/tweaking/adding cool equipment etc. to the studio since then and does many other recordings there as well as his own and mine. And it is basically now his studio.
Q: Speaking of Autosalvage, did they finish their new album?
A: I went with the reunion of Autosalvage as guitarist/steel guitarist to SXSW in 2013, and we did a few sets there after having rehearsed like crazy in Bolinas over the previous couple of months and made a sort of video. I don’t think anything further has evolved.
Q: How did you meet the album’s bassist, Sam Page?
A: He subbed one night with the Barry (“The Fish”) Melton Band at the Saloon (in San Francisco) and I had known a little about him before but never actually played with him. I was impressed and we talked and he also plays the “real” acoustic bass, which is what we use (on the new album), and we tried it out and it clicked. He is solid as a rock and knows a gazillion songs.
Q: How did you meet the guys from the Italian band Red Wine, who make guest appearances? Was it related to your online vintage instrument business?
A: I became infatuated with Italy when I went for the very first time in 2007, and I came home and made a vow to spend a little less at home, work a little harder and go to Italy at least twice a year for the rest of my life, getting to know all 20 regions and their cultures, cuisines, wines, art, architecture, literature, etc. I enrolled in an Italian class and have been in classes ever since, several long-term ones in Italy. When my friend David Grisman came home from there in 2009 with a Giacomel mandolin, I was immensely impressed. And when I heard him play it at a gig and on a record, I decided I better get one. I started communicating with Corrado Giacomel and then met him and it was through him that I met Martino Coppo and the rest of the Red Wine gang and also Carlo Aonzo, and also a wonderful circus troupe called Compagnia Teatro Scalzo who are all great musicians as well.
Q: Your singing voice has come a long way. Did you make a conscientious effort to improve it?
A: Yes. I’ve always been a good harmony singer and able to blend well with different types of voices. I realized in about 2004 that my voice was improving and that I could actually engage people just by singing songs solo — self-accompanied. So I started practicing singing just like I practice playing instruments. It seems to be working.
Q: Is it true that the Youngbloods recorded a never-released country album?
A: Yes. It’s called Country Home and it may be released at some point by Sundazed Records.
Q: When you played live with the Youngbloods as a trio, was it an either/or thing with the guitar and electric piano? Or did you sometimes play both on some songs?
A: I almost always played one or the other. It was after The Youngbloods that I started sometimes wearing a guitar while standing at the organ and going back and forth between the two. I played the Wurlitzer sitting on a psychedelic piano bench.
Q: Do you miss playing the electric piano?
A: I prefer the acoustic piano.
Q: How did you get the nickname Banana?
A: In 1962, Peter Golden and I were at the dress rehearsal of the Boston University production of “On the Town” by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein.
We were merely stagehands, as freshmen are not allowed to actually appear in major productions, which this was. There is a scene in “On the Town, with whose plot you may be familiar but I shall synopsize it here: Three sailors are on leave in New York City for only 24 hours; will they get lai …. no no … will they find romance?
The show includes many great songs, but one not so great is when one of the protagonists and his newly found girlfriend are taking an open cab ride through Central Park. The “cab” is actually a flat painted to look like a cab, and it has large dowels protruding from its back so that two stagehands crouching down on their knees can hold on to the dowels while they painfully shuffle along making the cab look like it is moving on its own across the stage with the two actors walking in back of it. Hey — you asked.
Guess who those two stagehands were?
The cab pauses in the middle of the stage, and while the stagehands endure their agony the couple sings a romantic song. This song kept being interrupted during this dress rehearsal by costume people and then makeup people and then stage-blocking people and all the while Peter and I, yes, crouched down there.
Well, in our extreme agony and boredom we decided that it was absolutely imperative that we think of the funkiest, folkiest name that might have been used in 1936. The best we could come up with was “Harmon N. Banana,” so we went with it. We formed the band right then and there. “Harmon N. Banana and the Bunch — Old Time Music With Appeal.” Within minutes we had created the secret handshake and high sign, which we both now have forgotten.
I can drag this story on for many more paragraphs about the clubs we played and how we realized the name was holding us back, so we changed it to “Harmon N. Banana and the Down Home Redneck Jamboree.” When our draw failed to improve, we decided a more drastic name change was in order: “Harmon N. Banana and the Knights of Pytheas Wake the Dead Gospel Choir.”
Nope, still no stardom. … Eventually we dropped the “Harmon N.” as it just confused people. What in the world, they wondered, was the “N” for?
“Nothing” was our standard response.
1. Grizzly Bear
2. Supersonic Transport
3. Darkness Darkness
4. The Pool Hall Song
6. Hippie From Olema
8. On Sir Francis Drake
9. Eyes Eyes
10 Stagger Lee
11. Get Together
12. Sugar Babe
Total time: 46:46