Duke Levine takes a ride back in the time machine to play the songs of his youth in his Super Sweet Sounds of the ’70s showcases.
When he launched the showcase as a change of pace in the fall of 2017, Duke Levine didn’t realize precisely what he was getting himself him into. Now, the nostalgia-soaked project he dubbed “Duke Levine & The Super Sweet Sounds of the ’70s” is a full-blown phenomenon.
Since that first show at Lizard Lounge almost two years ago, Levine and his bandmates have averaged about two Super Sweet shows per month. There are no signs of slowing down. They have recorded three songs and posted two videos from those studio sessions. A live record is in the offing and there is even merchandise to be had! Aside from his five solo albums, that’s something Levine has shied away from over the years. In more than a decade of shows performing songs from those records with the Duke Levine Band, the undeniably gifted guitarist rarely bothered to offer even CDs for sale. Now, there are “Super Sweet Sounds of the ’70s” t-shirts! And they’re moving.”
The mania is clearly contagious.
As he was coming off stage after the latest showcase Tuesday at the Lizard, a fan excitedly approached Levine to tell him that she loves the instrumental takes on the songs of the ’70s. “So do I!” he said with a smile. “It’s all I want to do.”
Asked the next day about the exchange, Levine said it exaggerates his priorities but not his enthusiasm.
“Obviously, its not all I want to do. … Maybe if we were doing it all the time I might feel differently,” he said. “But it’s still really fun, it’s creative, it’s still evolving, we’re adding more tunes. And it’s really fun working on it.”
For the uninitiated, the covered songs include inventive takes on some of the decade’s hits you might expect, such as Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” and Jeff Beck’s “You Know What I Mean,” and some unexpected treats in “Also Sprach” by Strauss, also known as the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme, and “The Streetbeater,” better known as the Quincy Jones-penned theme for the iconic 1970s TV show “Sanford and Son.”
The reinvented songs sound entirely fresh but compellingly familiar. Amid the capacity crowds, you can see heads nodding along, with others tilted quizzically before the revelation dawns and that smile spreads ear-to-ear.
“There was a lot of that for the first couple of shows with people trying to figure out what tune we are doing, and it’s still that way,” Levine said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The Super Sweet shows have effectively supplanted the Duke Levine Band gigs in which Levine regularly performed his “country soul” originals, and select covers, including “Strawberry Fields,” and one song that helped to germinate the ’70s concept, Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.” Those, like the Super Sweet showcase tunes, are instrumental (although the players and audience alike cannot help but sing the exclamative refrain in “Hold Your Head Up” in the ’70s shows).
While Levine’s performances of his originals would regularly play to full and enthusiastic crowds at Atwood’s Tavern, the guitarist said he felt a little stagnated by it.
“I was getting a little bored of my own [original] music,” he said. “It felt like maybe I needed to take a break from that and do something different.”
Levine often joins local trance-funk ensemble Club d’Elf for performances of his material in what they dubbed “Club Duke.” He knew the Club d’Elf principals — along with his veritable guitar blood-brother, Kevin Barry, a member of the Duke Levine Band who also joins Levine in Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers and the Dennis Brennan Band — made the perfect ensemble for the Sweet Sounds project. And so with Barry on guitar and lap steel, and the four Club d’Elf regulars — Paul Schultheis keyboards; Michael Rivard, bass; Dean Johnston, drums; and Yahuba Jose Garcia-Torres, congas — the band founded on the ethereal coolness of the ’70s was born.
They have brought in some guest ringers, too, including early on Darol Anger to reprise his role on the David Grisman Quintet’s “Fish Scales,” and on Tuesday, famed Fairport Convention and Paul McCartney drummer Dave Mattacks to sit in on the Fairport song “Dirty Linen.”
“That’s a gas when you can bring in guys like Darol and Dave and have them play the songs they had a hand in,” Levine said. “I hope we can do some more of that.”
As for the recording projects, they are still a work in progress.
“We recorded three tunes, two of which are up on YouTube [videos],” Levine said of sessions at Chris Rival’s Middleville Studio in North Reading. “The idea was maybe we’ll do enough for an EP, but a lot of reason for doing it was to get a couple of nice videos up with good recording because the nature of the concept of this — unless you hear it — well, it could be anything. People might have their own [preconceived] ideas about it, but I wanted to stake out a bit of, ‘Here’s what it is,’ so at least people would understand the concept.”
He now is leaning more toward doing a live record. “The spirit of it would be best to do a live thing,” he said.
Levine is somewhat surprised by the audience reaction, both in local shows at Lizard and the Burren, at John Henry’s Hammer Coffeehouse in his hometown of Worcester, and at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Maine.
“A lot of people make a point of saying they like it. Something hits them, and it brings them back [to that time],” Levine said. “Maybe part of the reason is because it’s a little more abstract than just cover versions of the tunes. It has the essence, I think.”
That essence is at times mind-blowing, especially when Duke & Co. spin one or more songs into a medley. My favorite, and apparently that of Garcia-Torres, is what the percussionist calls the “Cosmic Trifecta,” the brilliant blending of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (Major Tom) and Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The way those tunes expand and float, almost weightlessly, truly is a cosmic experience.
It is boggling that Levine and his players seem to pull it all out of the ether, performing as many as 22 songs per show without charts at the ready.
“For me, once you’ve played them enough, they kind of stick,” Levine said nonchalantly. “I don’t like to look at charts if I can help it. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I do [look at charts], and I know how to read them, but there’s something about it for me that takes me out of the song a little bit.”
Instead, Levine said, more often it springs from a demo he records of his concept for each song and plays for the band “just so they can hear the ideas I have for it. Of course, they make them sound 10 times better.”
While Levine is known far and wide as the “Master of the Telecaster,” and plays Fenders the large majority of his gigs, he spends more time in these shows with a Les Paul in his hands.
“A lot of those tunes it feels really right, and it’s fun to play it,” he said of the Gibson.
There is also another rarity for Levine in these shows. He uses an analog Korg X-911 synth with his Les Paul. He said it came to him while working on a demo of The Band’s “Whispering Pines” for the other players to hear.
“I knew I wanted to do the song, but I didn’t know what sound would play the melody,” he said. “I messed around with different ideas, but it wasn’t until I broke out my guitar synth that I really liked it. Then it started to feel like a different thing.”
Levine says when he’s doing the demos, he uses drum loops in Garage Band or Logic, to help find something “in the zone of the mood” and that the percussionists sometimes take the sounds and run with it, as they did with his demo for “Whispering Pines.”
“Dean learned that, and he and Yahuba took that loop … and came up with this cool groove based on whatever thing I had on the demo,” Levine said, “which I never even thought about, but it ended up really cool.”
Levine has had a lot of fun with promos for the show, taking vintage images of Columbia House ads for records and 8-tracks, and vintage photos of himself to underscore the time-machine aspect, saying “It’s a small bit of work to keep people interested.”
He said the Facebook promos have been a hit with people and helped expand the audience. That included a visit by Barry’s brother Paul all the way from Seattle Tuesday night. Paul Barry saw one of the videos, so he decided to make the trip just to the enjoy the live experience. Levine said he’s also received nice messages from musicians across the country.
Given that wide appeal, Levine said he and the band are considering more out-of-town shows, including perhaps “a trip to the city” — meaning New York. “I’d like to take advantage of [the wider interest] happening, and maybe we can go out and play some other places,” he said.
And they’re already scheduled to do it again at the Lizard on May 14. In the meantime, Levine will try to get the hang of this merchandising thing. He remarked that he forgot to push them at the first two shows they were available for sale. Tuesday, he pointed to the merchandise table staffed by volunteers, and soon the shirts were selling briskly. Levine said he has discovered one more thing about the marketing side. “The one thing I’ve learned is that guys want pink,” he said. “ Next time I need to order more colors!”