Ben Levin – Still Here
CD: 12 Songs, 41 Minutes
Styles: Piano Blues, Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues
“When you want to sing this kind of music, you can’t fake it. It’s either in you or it’s not.”
So said Simon Cowell to Sal Valentinetti, a 2016 America’s Got Talent contestant who performed a flawless rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Sal got the show’s Golden Buzzer, denoting a perfect score and an automatic trip to the quarterfinals. According to all the judges but especially Heidi Klum, “this kind of music” lay deeply within the young man.
Such is the case with Ben Levin, a piano blues wunderkind who has sidestepped the staccato, tweeting ethos of this current century in favor of an earlier, calmer, deeper sound. When some contemporaries pound 88 keys, you hear their flair and flash, but not the workings of their soul. With Ben’s every note, laid upon his instrument of choice like an artist lays brush upon canvas, he bares his inner core. It radiates with the purity of someone withholding naught, proffering all.
Says “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin in the CD liner notes: “I played in Cincinnati in the mid-1970s with the Muddy Waters band at a club called Bogart’s. Always opening those shows was Cincinnati’s legendary boogie-woogie and blues star Big Joe Duskin, playing piano and singing. I played bass on Joe’s sets and recorded an album with him on guitar in 1978. Missing those good times, I couldn’t imagine that old-school magic returning, yet here’s Ben Levin.”
Performing alongside our protagonist are his father Aron Levin on guitar, Chris Douglas on bass, and Oscar Bernal on drums.
If you crave piano blues, the first four songs will light your fuse. The third one, “That’s the Meal,” is a sing-along LOL-fest about rotten rations of – well, everything: cafeteria fare, airline peanuts (or the singular), and a chicken sandwich that doesn’t live up to its ad hype. “I don’t mean to be rude,” Ben implores. “I just want a little more food.” Turns out he’s not the only one. The next three selections are fair-to-middling; then “Crown Jewel” lives up to its name. Grab a box of tissues for a deluge of “Christmas Rain” from your eyes. It’s about Aron’s bout with COVID, requiring hospitalization and a coal-ton of worry for the family. “Her Older Brother” may be an intimidating character, but this earworm is so wriggly you’ll hope our main character will get caught on the wrong side of his words (or fists). Then comes shameless number eleven, a throw-down hoedown called “I Wonder What’s the Matter.” It’ll have you slapping your knees and stomping your feet, even after it’s over. Last but not least, “Your Essential Worker” will insist, “Every hour I put in is all for your sake.” 24/7, Levin!
Today’s tunes are vastly based not on what fans or even record execs want to hear, but what an algorithm tells them they want to hear. Hot noise this week is next week’s hot noise, remixed. However, our hero’s piano blues – even if it’s written in the here and now, with postmodern lyrics and themes – hails from a time when the word “algorithm” didn’t exist.
As Simon Cowell also told Sal Valentinetti, “You’re an old soul.” So is Ben. Through his music, he lives his truth, having lived more than one lifetime via the blues. I’m thrilled that through it all, he’s Still Here.