By TOM CHESEK (Originally published in the Asbury Park Press April 14, 2006)
Maybe it’s his distinctive look and bearing — the chrome dome and martial mustache that wouldn’t be out of place on a Prussian officer, along with an onstage intensity that’s forced many a vocalist to work that much harder for the spotlight. Or, perhaps it’s his toybox of custom-crafted bass guitars and his vanguard virtuosity on the Chapman Stick, a device that appears more of a weapon than an instrument — one that can be plucked, slapped and bowed to produce a range of sounds limited solely by the globally-grounded consciousness and intergalactic imagination of its master.
Whatever the reason, Tony Levin stands as a real pop music anomaly: the “sideman” as star-quality attraction in a field where the bass player has more often than not been the sole reference point of sanity on the stage (see the late John Entwistle). This month, the side-star shines once more, with a new CD (Resonator, on the Narada label) and a new tour that returns The Tony Levin Band to The Saint in Asbury Park on Thursday, April 20.
Since his inauspicious recording debut on a 1962 disc by the Greater Boston Youth Orchestra, the sought-after studio man has backed many of the most stellar names in rock (John Lennon, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Stevie Nicks and Pink Floyd, to name but a few) as well as not-rock (Burt Bacharach, Cher, Karen Carpenter, Chuck Mangione, and even the cast of Sesame Street). To followers of that exhiliratingly arty strain of rock known as progressive (or “prog”), the Levin legacy is rooted within his tenure with King Crimson, as well as his long recording and touring association with Peter Gabriel.
Two of Tony’s bandmates from the Gabriel days, drummer Jerry Marotta and “Synergy” synthmeister Larry Fast, play prominent roles in Levin’s current project. They’re joined by Todd Rundgren Band veteran Jesse Gress on guitar —as well as by the latest addition to the lineup, brother Pete Levin on organ and piano. With guest appearances by Crimson’s Adrian Belew and Toto’s Steve Lukather further seasoning the sonic stew, the Resonator disc spotlights a subset of Levin’s skills that might surprise the casual fan — namely, eight of the ten tracks are full-blown songs.
“Fashioning a vocal album wasn’t the hard part; it was moving from a back-up vocalist — as I am with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson — to lead vocals,” Levin observes from his home in Woodstock, New York. “That’s why the project took over a year…mostly I was improving my vocal technique.”
While a more vocally-oriented project (with one notable exception being a furious take on the Khachaturian classic “Sabre Dance”) might seem a deliberate departure from the band’s calling-card strengths, the bassman emphasizes that “calling it ‘songs’ maybe implies a gentler album than it is…I think the music is still in the progressive rock vein that my last album (the live Double Espresso) was.
“I’ve introduced some deep ideas with the lyrics — often with some humor or irony — in a way that is, I hope, unique, and sounds like Tony Levin.”
Given that each of Levin’s solo and partnership projects carries its own distinct sonic stamp (the man has dabbled in jazz both traditional and transitional; traveled the world to record with folk musicians on nearly every continent, and made a very unique album inside a cave in the Catskills), the question naturally arises as to exactly what fans can expect to hear at the Saint stopover. According to Levin, it’s a group-oriented set that not only draws from the group’s recent works, but also includes tributes to King Crimson, Gabriel, Genesis and other cornerstones of the band’s collective background.
“I put together my set based on the kind of shows I like to see,” Levin explains. “I enjoy hearing new music, but also the familiar pieces I might know from a band.
“And then there are the ‘surprises’…with four singers in the band, we can now do occasional barbershop quartets! And then there are the kazoos…I’d better leave it at that.”
The April 20 date represents an encore Asbury engagement for the artist who’s gigged extensively at such Shore area venues as Convention Hall, PNC Bank Arts Center and the Count Basie Theatre.
“I’ve played the shore with other groups too, from rehearsing there with Richie Sambora to playing with bar band Uncle Funk.” adds Levin. “It’s well known to be home of serious rock fans, and an especially receptive place for progressive rock.”
Culling his road-tested memory for a peculiarly Asbury anecdote, the globetrotting musical adventurer recalls “approaching the pier in Asbury Park, in a van with all of King Crimson in it, rolling the window for directions, and a rambunctious fan recognizing us and shouting ‘Hey, are you guys f***in’ psyched, or What!’
“I don’t think Robert (Fripp) and Bill (Bruford), the British contingent of the band, ever forgot that!”