Tony Levin Band, Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT- 3/30
Most are familiar with Tony Levin as the bass player for the progressive rock band King Crimson as well as for Peter Gabriel. Fans of Gov't Mule may have recently been exposed to Tony's playing from his work on the song, "World of Confusion" off The Deep End Volume 2 (as well as his guest appearance at the Mule's December 30, 2002 show). Just by looking at these three projects it is clear that his playing is diverse.
As I walked into Toad's Place on March 30th to see the Tony Levin Band I was surprised, and anyone familiar with the small club would be equally as confused. The under-21 section was small as I expected, since Tony Levin in all of his musical manifestations generally appeals to an older crowd, but on the other side of the fence in 21-and-over-land, everyone was sitting down. This particular fact did not really bother me, as much disorient me. I was not sure what kind of atmosphere the seating would create. Tony is an intense performer, and I thought that perhaps the seated crowd before him would detract from that energy. The setting, however, seemed to bring out the best in Tony and the band, as the crowd, although motionless seemed to be hanging on every note the band played.
The show started with synthesizer player Larry Fast emerging from the dark side of the stage, taking his time in doing so. He sat down and began to put the audience into a trance. Guitarist Jesse Gress then did his best Frankenstein imitation as Fast continued with the same haunting notes. As Gress contorted his body and made various facial expressions, singer and drummer Jerry Marotta walked towards the front of the stage, playing hand percussion. Jerry has played on records with the likes of Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Los Lobos and Paul McCartney. He is capable of being a role player- sinking into a groove when need be, or playing with force and power. Each member of the band seemed to be into his own motion, moving the music in different directions, as Tony Levin came stomping out from behind the stage as if he were fifty feet tall. He wasted no time putting on his "funk sticks." For those who have not seen him live, these are essentially finger extensions made of wood that he connects to the end of his hand. Instead of slapping the strings, when he uses the sticks, only the wood comes in contact with the strings creating more of a bounce to the sound.
Eclectic and eccentric describe the Tony Levin Band's music and its members. Each player has his own style both musically and in terms of his stage persona. At times, however, the quirkiness of some members can detract from the band's overall sound. For instance, on songs like "Phobos," Fast's synthesizer could be a bit much.
Still there were a number of standout moments, as Levin is able to take a song on a dark and heavy path reminiscent of many King Crimson songs, but he also can add a lighter feel as he did on the classical and jazz sounding "Utopia." Furthermore, Tony is a performer; he makes an intense connection with the audience as he spreads his legs anchoring himself on stage. On a song such as "Pieces of the Sun," he alternately played both the electric bass and an electric upright with a bow in the same song. His instruments also range from a standard electric bass to the stick bass, which is a two-handed tapping style 10-string bass.
The band's creativity also was evidenced through its arrangements of the covers it performed. The Mancini original, "Peter Gunn" and the Led Zeppelin hit, "Black Dog," are standards, but Tony's thumping bass on "Peter Gunn," accented by Fast on synthesizer, and Gress's guitar mimicking Robert Plant's vocals on "Black Dog" redefined these songs. "Give Peace a Chance," made sense for the politically active Levin, but the band went in so many new directions, putting much more of a heavy sound on the Lennon/McCartney original. Playing this song in such an interesting fashion also led the crowd to (re)consider its timeless lyrics. As for another cover, if you were not familiar with the Tony Levin Band, you would most likely not recognize it but for its one word, "Tequila." Jerry was now on saxophone, and the band played it in an eerie fashion reminiscent of the band Morphine.
One of Tony's quotes from the Rising Low can sum up the show and Tony himself. When referring to all bass players he said, "For music we hold the basics down, but we surprise people with other options that they didn't think could happen."