Ben Levin – Before Me
VizzTone Label Group VTBL 002
12 songs – 43 minutes
Gifted pianist/vocalist Ben Levin made quite a splash at last year’s Blues Blast Music Awards, garnering nominations for debut album of the year and the Sean Costello Award for rising artists, and he continues his ascent with this beautifully conceived disc, which includes contributions from some of the most important folks in the business.
With old-school sensibilities and a ton of talent, Levin is carrying forward the sound of traditional blues keyboard, and has been a welcome breath of new life in a community that lost both David Maxwell and Chicagoan Barrelhouse Chuck Goering to cancer in recent years, leaving a stylistic hole that many experts feared never would be filled.
Still only 19 years old and a rising sophomore at his hometown University Of Cincinnati in Ohio, Ben began playing professionally at age 11 alongside his father, Aron, in The Heaters. He now plays about 100 gigs a year in both solo and group formats. A 2018 semi-finalist in the International Blues Challenge solo-duo category, he’s an international talent whose travels have taken him to festival appearances in France and the Netherlands.
This is Levin’s second CD, a welcome follow-up to his debut 2017 release, Ben’s Blues. He’s joined here by two true blues veterans, both of whom have been working with him live in the past year or so. They include former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin and Arizona-based award-winning harmonica player Bob Corritore.
The rhythm section is composed of Chris Douglas on upright bass and vocals and Oscar Bernal on drums. The legendary Philip Paul, the 93-year-old Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer — who served as studio percussionist at King Records from 1952 to 1965, laying down the beat for Little Willie John’s “Fever,” Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway” and “Tore Down,” among other chart-toppers – sits in for two cuts and frequently appears with Levin when he’s booked in the Queen City.
Adding to the mix on this collection of six originals and six covers are Ben’s dad Aron, who provides six-string on five tunes, percussionist Stan Ginn, and vocalists Mel Hatch Douglas and Kennedy McPherson, all of whom make a single guest appearance.
Levin displays a strong left hand and light touch with the right as he kicks off Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good” to open the disc with the full band joining in after a few brief bars. Like all of the material here, it swings slightly behind the beat, and it comes across with a strong feel of the ‘40s thanks to individual solos from Ben, Margolin and Corritore. The original “Pappy” describes an older friend and features some sweet rapid-fire signature accents on the high keys and delightfully delicate barrelhouse.
Ben updates Jay McShann’s familiar “Confessin’ The Blues” as a rollicking instrumental, trading off licks with guitar and harp, before launching into a pair of self-penned numbers. The stop-time “Before Me” would fit comfortably in the ‘50s with a vocal sound and piano delivery that’s reminiscent of Fats Domino. The New Orleans feel continues with “Creole Kitchen,” a more modern instrumental that would be more suited to Allen Toussaint before a slow-and-steady take on Freddie King’s 1961 recording of “Lonesome Whistle Blues.”
Two more originals — the slow blues, “So Soon,” which delivers a cautionary message about drinking and one-night love affairs, and the pendulum perfect “Load Off My Back” – precede a driving cover of the James Cotton/Otis Spann 1965 pleaser “Lightning” and the easy, greasy “I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya,” a minor hit for the Griffin Brothers a decade earlier. “Open Late,” a slow-and steady instrumental co-written with Margolin and Corritore, brings the action to a close.
Folks like Leroy Carr, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, David Maxwell and Barrelhouse Chuck all live on through the talents of Ben Levin. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up and give it a good listen. It’s available through most major retailers. If you like traditional blues piano as much as I do, you’ll be beaming throughout.