Over the past few years there’s been a rush of overdue attention paid to the studio musicians responsible for some of the finest music of the rock and roll era. The Swampers in Muscle Schoals. The Wrecking Crew in LA. The Funk Brothers in Motown.
I expect that many places, even today, have a collection of studio musicians who are quietly — but consistently — lending their talents to other artists’ work. High atop that list in Boston is guitarist Duke Levine.
Anyone who has seen Peter Wolf or the J. Geils Band in recent years has undoubtedly heard Levine play. His resume also includes work with artists ranging from Lee Ann Womack to Mary Chapin Carpenter, to name just two.
Locally, Levine is a man about town. Live he can often be found playing alongside his equally talented guitarist counterpart Kevin Barry.
He also makes the rounds in Boston recording studios, as this playlist illustrates. Levine is the featured guitarist on ALL of these recent Boston music releases.
Is it possible for an artist to keep one foot in the past while pushing forward in new directions? It doesn’t happen often, but Girls Guns and Glory pull it off with their latest release. Love and Protest finds the group hurdling deeper into a rock and roll sound while still hearkening back to their classic country roots.
The group set the tone right from the start with the chugging guitars and insistent rhythm of the opening track, the aptly titled “Rock and Roll.” The song builds to a fist-pumping chorus as singer-songwriter Ward Hayden proclaims that he is “ready to rock and roll.”
“Wine Went Bad (But I’m Still Drinkin)” is, itself, a classic country title. The song, however, mixes in some classic 1950’s elements to emerge as one of the album’s standouts. Hayden reflects on how we sometimes, right or wrong, carry on through difficult situations. The song also features plenty of guest guitarist Duke Levine’s magic, sometimes a low rumbling sound and sometimes a high string-bent tone.
The country element is strongest on tracks like “Diamondillium” and “Empty Bottles”. The former has a mysterious-sounding plains of the West feel even as Hayden’s echo-drenched voice tells a science fiction tale. The latter hearkens back to the classic tales of country heartache as Hayden sings:
Empty bottles are all I’ve got to cling to, they’re all that’s left of what used to be,
I thought I could ease the pain of losing you by breaking my heartache and killin’ the blues,
empty bottles are all that remain.
The album also showcases Ward Hayden’s progression as a songwriter. He offers a wizened world view that veers between weariness and optimism. The most prominent example is “Well Laid Plans,” a subdued reflection on choices made and the less than satisfying outcomes that resulted. Hayden ultimately concludes that “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey we seek.” (Cowboy) hats off to Girls Guns and Glory for continuing to take us on a fine musical journey.
The High Road, Hayley Reardon (from the self-released Good)
I’ll admit a certain skepticism when I saw a track titled “Fourth Grade” on Reardon’s sophomore release. I certainly have some (well, a few) memories of the time but it’s hard to imagine that a song about that period would resonate with those rather removed from that period in their lives. Well, Reardon proved me wrong, turning it into an ode to the kind of youthful optimism to which we should all aspire. “I hope your favorite days feel like fourth grade,” she sings.
Musically Reardon melds pop, Americana and jazz. I suppose without the textured arrangements, courtesy of guitarist Levine along with a collection of Boston’s top Americana session musicians, the music would pass for folk. The jazz-tinged intricacy that the band instill in her songs, however, gives them a special charm.
Reardon sings – and writes – with a confidence beyond her years. On “Paper Mache” she laments a period of fragility and fear yet still retains hope that life will become something more in the future.
And lest anyone think that she’s not capable of firmly standing her ground, she’ll convince them otherwise with “The High Road.” An infectious pop melody stands in sharp contrast to lyrics that take a former lover to task. “If I ever tried to pull off all the crazy shit you do, I’d want you to skip the high road too,” she sings. A velvet glove, for sure, but a song that heralds the arrival of a songwriter with talent and something to say.
Around the Bend, Dennis Brennan (from the self-released Into This World)
I wrote about Brennan’s forthcoming album several months back (here), my eagerness to sing its praises outweighing my usual restraint to wait until an album is available for purchase. Well, Brennan’s time has arrived – Into This World is now available for our listening pleasure.
So what does this have to do with Levine? Well, Levine is a longtime members of the Dennis Brennan band and Levine even co-wrote “Government Johnny McKee,” one of Brennan’s live staples.
Levine’s, as well as fellow guitarist Kevin Barry’s, guitar fingerprints are all over Brennan’s latest. Fingerprints perhaps doesn’t do it justice – electric fist bumps are perhaps the best way to describe the guitar fury, not to mention the solos, on tracks like “Observation Blues” and the appropriately titled “Work It.” The chugging romp of the title track and the electric and pedal steel interplay of “Around the Bend,” the song featured here, give Brennan’s song a healthy charm and bite.
For those in the Boston area, Brennan will be celebrating the release tonight and tomorrow at Twangville fave The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.
In the midst of all his session work, Levine somehow managed to write and record The Fade Out. The album of instrumentals, released earlier this year, is a collection of Levine originals alongside a group of choice covers.
Not surprisingly, the songs are centered around guitars. Most often it is Levine on electric guitar alongside Kevin Barry on acoustic and pedal steel. Throw in a number of Levine’s friends on rhythm and keys and the musicianship is something to behold.
As much as I enjoy the covers, it’s the Levine originals that shine the brightest. In fact, the placement of his originals alongside the covers makes a statement as to how an instrumental should sound. More than just plucking out a melody on guitar, the best instrumentals are about creating an enchanting – and often entrancing – soundscape. It’s a point driven home on songs like “Before You Know” and “Sam Brown Hill.”
Oh, and those covers range from Charles Mingus to Arthur Alexander to Joni Mitchell, demonstrating the range of Levine’s musical interests and talents. Ain’t nobody can argue with Levine’s musical credibility.
About the author: Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.