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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1686

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Chuck Leavell: Back to the Woods
by George Graham

(Evergreen 005 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/23/2012)

For most people, the guitar is the principal instrument of the blues, from the acoustic rural blues, to the slide guitar style, to the electric blues that emerged in Chicago starting in the 1940s. But the piano has always been a part of the blues, especially in its earlier days at the beginning of the 20th Century, when pianos were found in many people's homes, and the juke joints and barrelhouses where the blues was performed all had a piano, and where piano-playing itinerant blues artist would come in and do their thing. There were many early blues recordings by pianists, and some of the great early blues singers like Bessie Smith were accompanied by piano on their records.

There are plenty of blues-guitar oriented albums out there, but contemporary blues piano recordings are a lot less numerous. Some of the current artists who specialize in the instrument include Henry Butler, David Maxwell and Marcia Ball. This week we have a new recording by a veteran artist who is most often heard as a sideman for some prominent people. Chuck Leavell has just released a CD called Back to the Woods which pays tribute to a bunch of early, and often obscure blues pianists, doing some of the songs they recorded back in the day, adding his own spin, but keeping it authentic.

At age 15, Chuck Leavell saw a performance by Ray Charles, that he said would set the direction for his life. He traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and to the famous studio there, at age 15 and got gigs to record with several artists. In the late 1960s, he moved to Macon, Georgia, and became involved with studio work for Capricorn Records, including albums by Dr. John, The Marshall Tucker Band and the Alex Taylor, the late brother of James Taylor. In 1972 at age 20, Leavell was recruited for the Allman Brothers Band, and was part of some of their most famous albums, including Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters. After the initial breakup of the Allman Brothers Band, Leavell headed a popular jazz-rock fusion group called Sea Level, and then in 1982 began a more than quarter-century association with the Rolling Stones, touring and recording with them. He was also a first-call studio keyboard player for artists like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler and country star Lee Ann Womack, to name a few. In addition to his musical pursuits, Leavell is also involved with forestry and conservation, the author of "Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest" in 2001, and he and his wife manage a forest on their land, the Charlane Plantation, near Macon, Georgia.

With all his pursuits as a sideman, Leavell has not recorded under his own name very often, releasing a Christmas album a few years ago and a couple of recordings during the 2000s.

Now he is out with Back to the Woods, which given his interest in forestry, seems like an appropriate title. It also features his vocals prominently, something he has done infrequently on record. It's a great collection of classic blues piano styles from boogie woogie and barrelhouse to the rolling New Orleans piano approach. The CD is presented as a kind of history lesson, with copious notes in the CD booklet about the pianists to which he pays tribute, including Leroy Carr, Memphis Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Otis Spann, and a few who only recorded a couple of sides in the 1930s and about whom little is known.

Leavell is joined by a regular band that includes Chris Enhauser on acoustic bass and Louis Romanos on drums, and a bunch of guests including Rolling Stone Keith Richards and John Mayer, plus Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers on guitars, Candi Staton and Col. Bruce Hampton on guest vocals. They all sound as if they are having a great time. The mood is upbeat and spirited, even on the slower blues tunes. Leavell's piano work is crisp but captures the mood and stylistic elements that made early blues piano so appealing and energetic, and his vocals embody just the right spirit.

The 15-song CD opens with a Little Brother Montgomery song No Special Rider with the regular band. The rollicking tune has elements of the New Orleans piano style with classic boogie woogie blues. <<>>

Keith Richards makes his first appearance on a slower tune called Evening Train, by Leroy Carr. Richards is on acoustic guitar, and while the tune is more laid-back, it still has a great blues groove. <<>>

John Mayer appears on electric guitar on the Memphis Slim tune Wish Me Well, a kind of classic shuffle blues. It's another excellent performance. <<>>

A Leroy Carr tune, Low Down Dirty Dog is given a great New Orleans style piano treatment by Leavell. The guitarist is Danny Barnes. The track also has one of Leavell's best vocals on the album. <<>>

The CD's title track Back to the Woods is a song by the obscure blues pianist Charlie Spand. The arrangement is more old-fashioned with no drums, and the bass provides by Danny Barnes on his tuba. Barnes is also heard on guitar. <<>>

Leavell also includes a song recorded by a far less obscure blues pianist, Ray Charles. Losing Hand is nicely done as a slow blues featuring a horn section with some great piano work by Leavell. <<>>

Otis Spann was a pianist known to many blues fans for his work with Muddy Waters and other artists at Chess Records. Leavell and company do a Spann song called Boots and Shoes, which is served up as a great rocker. Both Keith Richards and John Mayer appear on guitars. <<>>

Leavell does a song in an earlier blues style called The Blues Is All Wrong by Leola Manning, one of the obscure artists from the late 1920s about whom little is known. Candi Staton does the vocal, while Leavell captures the essence of the style on piano. <<>>

The CD ends with another tune by Little Brother Montgomery, Vicksburg Blues, a slow tune also in an early style, which is done solo. <<>>

Chuck Leavell's new CD Back to the Woods is a reminder of how great the blues can be on piano. Leavell's tasteful playing captures the essence of the earlier styles, though he points out in his liner notes that the performances are his interpretations and not meant to be wholly authentic. He also proves to be a fine vocalist for the style, and he is joined by a first-rate band and some great guests, including Keith Richards and John Mayer. It's a worthy collection of music in that highlights some of the various piano blues styles, and makes for infectious listening from start to finish. The well-annotated CD booklet is a good reason to go for the real physical recording, rather than a download.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The piano is very well recorded, clean but just right for the style. Sometimes Leavell's vocals seem to be recorded in a way that emulates an old-fashioned microphone, but most of the time, the sound has good clarity. The dynamic range is not too bad for this genre.

Chuck Leavell's keyboard work has been heard by millions, but his solo recordings have been fairly infrequent. Back to the Woods seems like a labor of love for Leavell, and while it may not reach as wide an audience as has his work with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others, it's one of the best musical projects he has done in many years, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable recording.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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