Saturday, February 16, 2008

Barstool Blues reviewed by David Stine

Barstool Blues
Bob Levis
Big Paw Records
13 tracks/73:33

You may or may not have heard Bob Levis playing rhythm guitar behind Otis Rush or Lonnie Brooks, but Bob is also heck of a lead guitar player. If you want proof, buy this CD.
Bob suddenly found all the planets “aligned” last fall, and with the help of a financial backer, and fellow area musicians, set out to do his own CD. Since Bob doesn’t sing, he brought in an amazing group of folks you probably heard here and there--Lonnie Brooks, Steve Ditzell, Jimmy Voegeli, Big Jim Johnson, and Larry Pendleton--to help out. Adding guitar to the disc as well are Lonnie Brooks, Dave Wood, Steve Ditzell, and Larry Pendleton. Jimmy Voegeli adds piano and organ. Most of the drumming is done by Marty Binder, with Link Leary sitting in on three tracks. Dave Kaye plays bass throughout the disc. Big Jim Johnson, Teddy Laurence, and Westside Andy Linderman add harmonica. As you can see, besides the “Big Cities’ Mafia,” there is quite a crew of players here.
This CD kicks off with “It Takes Time,” one of my favorite Otis Rush tunes. Steve Ditzell handles the vocals; he and Bob spar on guitars; Voegeli adds nice organ; Ted Lawrence adds harmonica, and the rhythm section is Kaye and Binder. The song is enjoyable and well played although I wish Lawrence were a bit louder in the mix.
Big Jim Johnson sings song two, Bobby Charles’ “Why Are People Like That?” This is a nice version, with Bob adding some Otis Rush-inspired guitar. Players are Bob, Link, Ted, Dave Wood, and Dave Kaye. This is a good example of what Bob calls “the moving and soothing” side of the blues. Big Jim takes some liberties with the original lyrics, all in good fun.
“Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” was picked by Lonnie Brooks and is song three. The cast here is Brooks and Levis on guitars, Westside Andy on harmonica, Jimmy Voegeli on piano, Dave Kaye on bass, and Marty Binder on drums. Everyone adds the right amount of showmanship, keeping the focus on the song and not the solos, as is so prominent in this post-SRV era.
When “Mystery Train” popped up, I thought Oh Oh, not again; but I must say that the song is saved from mediocrity by the arrangement and the execution. We have the choo-choo drumming of Binder, and combined with Ted Laurence’s harp fills and Bob’s added seventh note to the rhythm, this track is a real toe-tapper that sounds fresh for a 50-something-year-old song. Among the many delights on this disc, this is one of them. Big Jim Johnson sings.
Song five is another Rush tune--“Double Trouble.” I have to say that after repeated spins of this disc, this may be my favorite cut. Steve Ditzell and Bob create a very cool groove and both of their performances are first rate. Steve does a great job on vocals, and there is a lot of guitar interchange here, but it is compelling and not boring like a lot of overdone soloing I’ve heard. Great job, guys!
For those of you who make Bob’s Wednesday night jam, “Bar Stool Breakdown” is probably familiar to you. But it was new to me since I don’t venture out on weeknights. This is a nice shuffle with major contributions form Westside Andy, Jimmy Voegeli and Levis. Sometimes instrumentals can be a bit L-O-N-G, but this one is a kicker that ends with a cool harmonica and guitar duet.
Those of you have seen Ernie and the Poor Boys know Larry Pendleton. Bob pulled in Larry to sing and play John Berry’s “I’m Coming Down With The Blues.” As Lonnie Brooks told Larry after the session, he sings it like it was his own. Solos from Bob, Andy Linderman, and lovely piano from Jimmy Voegeli add to another satisfying cut.
Song eight is another Otis Rush (surprise!) tune, “Three Times A Fool.” Again, Bob pulls in Steve Ditzell for vocals and guitar. If you like the blues, eight songs into the disc, you know it’s a keeper. Bob, Steve, and Ted Lawrence nail down the essential blues that got most of us listening in the first place.
Song nine, Bernard Roth’s “Just To Be With You,” also fights for being one of my favorites on this disc. Big Jim Johnson sings over an easy groove provided by Bob, the two Daves, Leary, and Ted Laurence. This could be an outtake from Hoodoo Man Blues. There’s a very easy Junior Wells feel to this song. Again, a favorite.
“Shufflisko” is a Dennis Gruenling-penned tune that is a tribute to Joe Filisko. Ted Laurence picked this tune as a tribute to both men and to show off his chops. Great backing from Bob, the two Daves and Marty Binder. We don’t have Big or Little Walter or the Sunny Boys anymore, but we do have some great harmonica players in Ted Laurence, Andy Linderman, and Dennis Gruenling -- all of whom have played in the area. If you’ve missed any of them, you’ve missed a lot! This song, to me, is a tribute to those players, fighting in the face of millions of wannabe guitar heroes. Nice job, Teddy.
“Now I’m Good” is a Richard Newell (King Biscuit Boy) tune sung by Jimmy Voegeli and aptly performed here with the help from Bob, Westside Andy, Kaye, and Binder. This is maybe the fastest tune on the CD and is a good example of what you might see at a Westside Andy/Mel Ford show.
Mark wanted Steve Ditzell to do a slide guitar tune, so song twelve is Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise.” Steve’s slide work carries the song yet allows Bob to contribute without competing. Steve does a great job on vocals. Ace rhythm section, Kaye and Binder are here as well.
The CD ends with “Getting Out of Town” written by Big Jim Johnson. This song oozes Chicago Blues but is a fitting end for a CD of the best of the Rockford Blues men as well. Solid rhythm from Leary and Kaye allow for Bob and Ted Lawrence to create something that sounds like a lost nugget from the golden era of Chicago Blues.
I like this CD A LOT. I would buy it even if I didn’t know any of the people involved. The rhythm section of Leary, Binder and Kaye is rock solid. The soloists are fantastic. The five singers provide a lot of variety and nuance. It is a very solid example of the blues the way I like it played. It is the CD you slip into your player on your way home from a long night at Legends, or Kingston Mines, or B.L.U.E.S. This CD is also a bit of Rockford history. The CD was recorded, mixed, produced in Rockford. It captures twelve songs by twelve men at the top of their game when “all the planets were aligned.”

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