Concert Review: Tony Levin (Valentine’s, Albany, New York, May 16, 2000)

It’s hard to talk (or write) about bass-master Tony Levin’s playing style without getting all aquatic with one’s adjectives. “Liquid” and “fluid” and “tidal” are all words that come to mind when the esteemed King Crimson and Peter Gabriel Band alumnus lets loose on his electric 5-string bass, carving spectacular new terrain as he quickly slices through calcified musical strata laid down over epochs before him. Of course, water can create new geography by steady, relentless pressure, or by cataclysm — and Levin’s ability to evoke both the meandering meadow creek and city-crushing tsunami has made him a long time favorite studio contributor for an almost impossibly eclectic collection of singers’ singers and players’ players.

Levin brought three of those players’ players with him when he appeared at Valentine’s last Tuesday night to support his latest record, the jazz-meets-world-music flavored Waters of Eden. Drummer Jerry Marotta and synthesist Larry Fast joined Levin in Peter Gabriel’s band during the ’80s, when they were captured for the record delivering a delirious series of performances on the Peter Gabriel Plays Live double album. Marotta has also got a titanic session and production record behind him, while Fast has issued an important series of synthesizer albums under the name Synergy. Rounding out Levin’s ensemble at Valentine’s was Woodstock’s Jesse Gress, the man who guitar-whiz Todd Rundgren has chosen to play lead guitar on stage in Todd’s own stead for the past decade, which is some fine endorsement, you bet.

The quartet focused on material from Waters of Eden for much of their set, allowing Levin to demonstrate his recently rediscovered love of the bowed upright bass, the haunting sound of which defines much of his new record’s atmospheric, awe-inducing aura. Interestingly, for many of the bowed numbers, Levin traded high-end melody lines with Gress, while Fast filled in the bass-man’s traditional bottom clef parts by generating rumbling undertones and subsonics on his Kurzweil synthesizer. Marotta departed from his normal percussionist’s role too, most notably when he stepped up to the mike to play David Sancious’ sax part on the dreamy “Icarus.”

At the opposite end of the auditory spectrum, Levin and company also demonstrated the firepower and volume that have allowed them to bowl over audiences at arenas and concert halls many times the size of Valentine’s. An impressive romp through King Crimson’s high-octane “Elephant Talk” (defined by Levin’s Chapman Stick work and enthusiastic vocals) was one of the evening’s high points, as was a Gress-helmed medley of crunchy Jimi Hendrix and King Crimson motifs. At evening’s end, the band wound down with a reinterpretation of “I Go Swimming” from Peter Gabriel Play Live, dropping most of the song’s lyrics but preserving the climactic “swimming in water/water rush over me” ending chorus. And what better way to wrap up an evening with an oceanic, world-embracing bass player than that?

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