LIVE: The Levin Brothers @ Senate Garage, 3/16/19

Review by J Hunter
Photographs and video by Rudy Lu

Just like in life, the worst thing you can do in music is “settle”: “I did it right once, so why change anything?” Happily, that stance isn’t good enough for keyboardist Pete Levin and bassist Tony Levin. The Levin Brothers’ self-titled BMG release – heavily influenced by the ’50s-era jazz they grew up listening to – was greeted warmly by all and sundry, just like Pete and Tony were greeted on their recent West Coast tour with longtime drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel. But after the tour, the Levins decided that changes needed to be made, both in personnel and material. As such, the audience that packed the Brothers’ “homecoming concert” at Kingston’s Senate Garage got a taste of the future to go with some big blasts from the past.

“I think I know three people here,” Tony cracked, squinting at the laughing crowd from behind a cut-down fretless upright bass mounted on a tripod. Meanwhile, Pete slowly climbed onto his stool, stashing the crutches that helped him maneuver with the broken ankle he’d recently suffered. Sitting on a high stool between them was guitarist David Spinozza, whose redoubtable resume includes an appearance on the Brothers’ 2014 disc. Although this was only the quartet’s third appearance together, they dove into the grooving opener “Out of Darkness” like a synchronized swim team, and the party was underway.

Although Pete did outstanding work on both electric piano and grand piano, his electric work just nosed out in front, and it was on electric that he funked up the opener, while Tony’s bass pulsated around the brick-and-tile space. Spinozza’s solo snapped like us like a pissed-off cat, but never scarred or slapped us, all the while reminding us what a big gun Spinozza was in countless ’70s sessions. Then Pete took the tune back and showed us the one thing an electric piano needs to sound righteous is a player with the right kind of touch. Siegel flexed just a few of the muscles we’d see over the course of the night, and then the brothers brought it back to the head, and like THAT the piece was done.

After introducing the group, Pete told us “We’ve changed a little bit” from the band’s original concept, tweaking the material and adding Spinozza as a regular band member to make the group “more contemporary.” And while the Jimi Hendrix blues “Up from the Skies” is a bit of a rock relic, it more than lends itself to the jazz-fusion vibe that coursed through Pete’s 2017 release Möbius. It also let Tony show his own voluminous chops as pulled Hendrix’ melody from the high end of his fretless bass. Pete and Tony tossed the melody back and forth before Spinozza shot musical sparks out of his Fender Telecaster.

Much of the music that followed may have taken people by surprise, but almost all of it came from the Levins’ collective resume: Becker & Fagan’s swinging “Jack of Speed” comes from Tony’s time backing up Steely Dan, and a lovely breakout of “Scarborough Fair” was a shout-out to the days when both brothers backed up Paul Simon. The latter tune had a taste of the original recording’s wistfulness, but almost none the regret, as if the final lyric went, “She once was a true love of mine. (Pause) Anyway…”

It’s a massive understatement to say Tony Levin is not your standard bass player. Sure, he can lay down a foundation with the best of them, but it’s in solo and counter where he does his real magic. He gives Pete a razor-sharp foil to play with, and play they did on the two tracks from Möbius, the steel-spined love song “Fade to Blue” and the celebratory “Kakilambe” (named after an African dance, though “I’m not going to attempt it,” Pete deadpanned).

“Havana” and “Gimme Some Scratch” came from the Brothers’ 2014 disc, and filtering them through the band’s new sound added to the general air of fun that pervaded the almost two-hour set. Tony had the real jaw-droppers of the night when he pulled out two tunes from one of his current groups, King Crimson: “Bolero” was a natural for a jazz group, while “Matte Kudasai” gave you a taste of Crimson’s otherworldly vibe even as the piece was shrunk down to fit this format.

Pete warmly referred to Siegel as “a Levin brother from another mother,” and Siege certainly shares Pete and Tony’s musical telepathy. With a kit that’s grown exponentially over the last couple of years, the Levin Brothers allows Siege to display all the strapping power and lyrical dexterity that hid under a bushel while he backed the late Lee Shaw. The Brothers also let Siegel bring out his mournful composition “Ballad of the Innocents” – a piece inspired by a mass shooting in Belgium; it was especially poignant given that the Christchurch shooting had happened the day before this show. Spinozza’s own tasty chops expands the group’s color palate even further, taking us from his own blues-soaked composition “Hidden Road” to the hushed beauty of “Cavatina”, more famously known as the theme from “The Deer Hunter.”

I’ve always thought Paul Winter’s “Icarus” was a fairly lightweight tune, but as an encore for this group, it literally soared with hope and beauty as Siegel played bird calls over the pulsing opening while Tony bowed some of his own. The two standing ovations the quartet received were well and truly earned. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait for anything new from the “new and improved” Levin Brothers, as Tony’s touring schedule with Crimson and the prog-jazz killers Stick Men will keep him busy until 2020. Until then, we have to be content with what we received in Kingston, and we can be happy that Pete and Tony Levin refuse to settle for what has come before.

GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…

UPCOMING: The Levin Brothers will take the stage at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton at 7pm Tuesday (March 26). Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door. And they’ll be at the Van Dyck in Schenectady at 8pm on Friday (March 29). Tickets are on sale now, priced at $18.

The Levin Brothers
Pete Levin
Tony Levin
David Spinozza
Jeff Siegel

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