If you like blues, soul, and funk of the Saturday night variety — Red Stripe and crawfish and Bourbon Street good times — Peter Levin is your guy. If you like Sunday morning music — as in soulful, energetic gospel — again, look no further. You don’t even have to buy two different records. Peter Levin, keyboardist for the Blind Boys of Alabama for the last 13 years, and before that Gregg Allman, has done all the heavy lifting for you.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (Moon Palace Entertainment/Immediate Family Records) was recorded using two different bands depending on which day and time we’re talking about. The uniting factor is Levin’s dazzling chops on the Hammond B-3 organ, piano, and wonderful “Cripple Creek” wah-wah clavinet. He uses his Blind Boys of Alabama cohort, Spooner Oldham, and Amanda Shires brings her fiddle to church. The Saturday night business is handled by some of the cream of the jazz and R&B world: Paul Frazier on bass, Chris Schianni on guitar, Dave Diamond on the bass, and two horn masters who go back to the Gregg Allman days with Levin, Art Edmaiston and Marc Franklin. Lenesha Randolph sings and it’s an all-out party on the Saturday night workouts. It’s a tribute to Levin’s keyboard elegance and producing finesse that nothing sounds disjointed. It all ebbs and flows; sometimes caressing, and sometimes knocking the living daylights out of you.
The tunes don’t exactly follow a pattern per se, but an essential structure is employed a great deal of the time: A seductive and groovy low-key intro, then the musicians come in, one or two at a time, everything builds up and up, everybody gets a chance to shine; then there’s a breakdown to give everyone a chance to catch their breath, and then it builds up again, gathering steam as it goes, until epic proportions are achieved. The opener track “Angel” is an example. “Love Letter” is another. These aren’t three-minute “get to the chorus” numbers. The tunes go on as long as they need to without overstaying their welcome. Several songs, such as “Billie’s Boogie”, with its great horns work, and “Come and Go Blues”, boasting shiny slide guitar flair, ditch those pesky lyrics altogether. Who needs ‘em?
Levin gives a tip of the hat to his old boss (actually a couple) with not one but two renditions of “Midnight Rider,” a version by one band and one by the other. The two takes on the Allman’s classic are completely different while neither loses the essential intent of the song itself. The Sunday morning version boasts a tremendous vocal treatment by Levin’s current employers, the aforementioned Blind Boys.
Worth the price of admission is a blazing version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” with a Little Feat-ish sinewy groove and Albert King feel that builds to a rave-up displaying energy The Grateful Dead would have done well to exhibit. (The Blind Boys’ own version of the song was the first-season theme song for HBO’s “The Wire.”) Other lovely things to listen for include the almost Zappa-esque “Gotta Light” — with the band sounding like they’ve just downed a pot of coffee — and the scent of Dr. John on “G Minor Shuffle.” There are other tinges from The Band, Randy Newman, and Levin’s own funky soul and gospel slant on things.
Levin plays the City Winery Thursday, Aug. 26, at 8 bells. Come and hear guest appearances by Ms. Shires, Randolph, and our very own McCrary Sisters. Levin will be the genial bearded chap at the keyboard. Tickets are available here.