Lowell Levinger

Get Together: Banana Recalls Youngbloods Classics

Grandpa Raccoon

levingerEven serious Youngbloods fans may have had a hard time keeping up with Lowell Levinger (the artist almost formerly known as Banana) since that group disbanded 42 years ago.

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.

Enough already.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. Grizzly Bear
2. Supersonic Transport
3. Darkness Darkness
4. The Pool Hall Song
5. Interlude
6. Hippie From Olema
7. Euphoria
8. On Sir Francis Drake
9. Eyes Eyes
10 Stagger Lee
11. Get Together
12. Sugar Babe

Total time: 46:46

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Leftover Salmon

Aquatic Hitchhiker

LoS

Leftover Salmon is back after an eight-year recording hiatus. The band had decided to give it a rest in 2005, after 15 years as a unit and three years following original banjo player Mark Vann’s surrender to cancer. 2007 saw the first in a series of occasional reunion shows, but the fire wasn’t stoked until RockyGrass Banjo Contest winner Andy Thorn was recruited in 2010.

In December 2011 and January 2012, a once again fully engaged LoS spent some time in studios in Denver and Portland with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin producing, resulting in “Aquatic Hitchhiker” — the group’s fifth studio album and first containing all original material.

Their self-coined “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” description applies only somewhat now, as “Bayou Town” is the sole track here with a Cajun element. There isn’t much polyethnicity left, either, outside of the Caribbean-flavored “Liza.” In their stead is a stronger dose of rock, successfully coexisting on an almost equal level with the slamgrass component.

Highlights of this superb return, which is on a par with LoS’ arguably finest moment, 1999’s “The Nashville Sessions,” include:

• The title track and lone instrumental, a high-speed showcase for newcomer Thorn.

• “Keep Driving,” guitarist Vince Herman’s seemingly effortless exercise in open-highway songwriting.

• The slow and beautiful “Light Behind the Rain,” a Thorn collaboration with amazing Colorado journeyman meatpacker/songwriter Benny Galloway, whose compositions have been recorded by the Yonder Mountain String Band and the Infamous Stringdusters.

• “Stop Your Worrying,” mandolinist Drew Emmitt’s rollicking breakdown, complete with tempo changes and guest fiddle by Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band.

• Bassist Greg Garrison’s “Gone for Long,” a plucky (figuratively and literally) midtempo dirge with almost-mellotron-sounding organ by Asher Fulero (aka Halo Refuser).

Tracks
1. Gulf Of Mexico
2. Keep Driving
3. Liza
4. Aquatic Hitchhiker
5. Bayou Town
6. Sing Up To The Moon
7. Light Behind The Rain
8. Stop All Your Worrying
9. Walking Shoes
10. Kentucky Skies
11. Gone For Long
12. Here Comes The Night

Total time: 46:36

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Brian Setzer

Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!

Surfdog

The Stray Cat takes another break from his namesake swing-revival orchestra, this time to create something he’s been hinting at for a while: an all-instrumental, cross-genre outing.

From the first Brian Setzer Orchestra album in 1994 to the 11th in 2010, he’s nearly always included an instrumental: “Sleepwalk,” “Caravan,” “The Nutcracker Suite,” “James Bond Theme,” “Honky Tonk,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin’,” “Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin’,” “Batman” — he’s even featured instrumentals on the occasional solo album and CD single. The eighth BSO album, “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” puts a swingin’ twist on classical standards and contains just two tracks with vocals.

Mixing covers with originals, “Instru-MENTAL!” is a heavenly gumbo of multitracked guitar picking and strumming, accompanied only by upright bass and drums (with the exception of vibraphone on the perky and appropriately sequenced ditty “Intermission”).

Setzer deftly traverses rockabilly, rock and roll, country, jazz, surf and bluegrass, often combining more than one style within a song. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” for instance, boasts rockabilly picking on top of jazz strumming. In an interview with Guitar Player magazine, the guitarist revealed he was “copping Elvis’ version of the song, not Bill Monroe’s.”

“Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown” is another number that exemplifies “-MENTAL’s” maniacal musical melange. Speed-flatpicking in the vein of Jimmy Bryant, Joe Maphis or Merle Travis and jazz stylings not unlike latter-era Hank Garland are but a few of the ideas Setzer pieced together for this Frankenstein’s monster of a song.

Other highlights include possibly the first instrumental version of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”; a rare Setzer banjo workout on Earl Scruggs’ “Earl’s Breakdown”; and two surf-style selections: “Hot Love” and “Go-Go Godzilla.”

The album’s final two covers are Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and an early white blues song from the 1920s that evolved into a jazz standard: Gene Austin and Nathaniel Shilkret’s “Lonesome Road.”

Tracks
1. Blue Moon Of Kentucky
2. Cherokee
3. Be-Bop-A-Lula
4. Earl’s Breakdown
5. Far Noir East
6. Intermission
7. Go-Go Godzilla
8. Lonesome Road
9. Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown
10. Hot Love
11. Pickpocket

Total time: 34:39

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury Band

American Legacies

McCoury Music/Preservation Hall Recordings

PHJB-McCouryDixieland meets bluegrass: Right off the bat, the fact that both use banjo comes to mind. But imagining the result of such a union isn’t easy.

It might sound like bluegrass with horns. Or it could sound like Dixieland with mandolin and fiddle. On “American Legacies,” it sounds like a little of both.

When the Del McCoury Band collaborated with PHJB for “After You’ve Gone” on last year’s benefit album “Preservation,” the result was so good that McCoury’s group felt like it was just the beginning. This is the result of their muse being followed.

Attempts at fusing the two genres are not exactly without precedence: In 1971, the Kinks employed the Mike Cotton Sound to add brass to their countrified classic, “Muswell Hillbillies.” The relationship spilled over to the followup, 1972’s “Everybody’s in Showbiz.” More overt attempts at blending bluegrass with Dixieland include Pete Wernick’s group Live Five (later called Flexigrass) and Larry Keel’s BlueBrass Project. But “American Legacies” is the first time a full-on Dixieland band has made an album with a bluegrass group.

McCoury is no stranger to collaboration: In 1999, his group joined forces with Steve Earle to create the album “The Mountain.” Likewise with PHJB, whose “Preservation” contained a different collaborator on each track, including Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Jim James, Jason Isbell, Richie Havens, Blind Boys of Alabama and Buddy Miller.

“American Legacies’ ” dozen new and old numbers offer plenty of adventure. Two instrumentals, “Mullensburg Joys” and “Banjo Frisco,” provide endless parades of solos. “The Sugar Blues” and “One Has My Name” put the spotlight on trumpet-fiddle interplay. “Jambalaya” has a rocksteady tuba beat tempered by Caribbean-style percussion. “I’ll Fly Away’s” gospel beginning gives way to “Saints”-style Dixieland before morphing into four-part bluegrass harmony and then back to gospel.

And it’s not all built around McCoury’s lead vocals, either — in true democratic spirit, PHJB vocalists Mark Braud and Clint Maedgen get to sing nearly as often, affording an even deeper exploration of the project’s possibilities.gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. The Band’s In Town
2. One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)
3. Shoeshine Blues
4. Banjo Frisco
5. A Good Gal
6. Jambalaya
7. I’ll Fly Away
8. You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry
9. The Sugar Blues
10. Mullensburg Joys
11. 50/50 Chance
12. One More ‘Fore I Die

Total time: 47:12

External links
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PHJB’s website
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30db

One Man Show

SCI Fidelity

30dbThere’s been no shortage of jam bands in the post-Grateful Dead era: Blues Traveler, Phish, moe., String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee and Widespread Panic, as well as countless “newgrass” groups including Railroad Earth, Yonder Mountain String Band and Blueground Undergrass.

A few recently have displayed a balance of quality musicianship, arrangement, restraint and vocals that places them in the same league as the good ol’ Dead.

Widespread Panic, for one; witness their latest, “Dirty Side Down.” But another, unexpected outfit is 30db: a side project consisting of Umphrey’s McGee guitarist Brendan Bayliss; Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin; North Mississippi Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson; Hot Rize guitarist Nick Forster; and Open Road bassist Eric Thorin.

The brainchild of Bayliss and Austin, 30db’s sound is driven by Bayliss’ electric guitar and Austin’s equally weighted mandolin, which at any minute could be serving a lead, rhythm or harmony function. The combination makes for a fresh approach in a genre that’s been slightly stale of late.

Trading off lead vocals from song to song, the two sing of something found to be in common after their paths crossed on the road enough times, something that was the catalyst for forming the group: recent breakups with significant others.

Despite such downer subject matter, the disc manages to be upbeat, rocking and — first and foremost — jamming!gnm_end_bug

Tracks
1. One Man Show
2. Always Up
3. Susanah
4. Liar
5. Backfire
6. Automatic
7. Lick #6
8. Grave
9. Return Item
10. Instrumental In D
11. Get In Line
12. One More
13. Wadmala
14. Backbone

Total time: 47:30

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